That Old College Try? Not When It Comes to Dormitory Safety

Awareness and education are the best ways to learn about electrical safety both on- and off-campus.

August 24, 2015 | By Paul Netter

Chandler Brown is a quick study.

A Harvard freshman majoring in environmental engineering, he recently moved into his dorm room. The Edison Scholar has a basic understanding of electrical hazards, but acknowledged that he probably couldn’t write that safety thesis just yet.

“I could probably use common sense and get past [electrical dangers] pretty well,” said Brown, who graduated last May as valedictorian at Silverado High School in Victorville. “But to actually be educated, no not necessarily.”

Brown isn’t alone. He is one of millions of students heading to universities over the next month who should do their homework to stay safe from the electrical shocks, injuries and fires that can occur at on- and off-campus housing.

U.S. fire departments respond to an estimated 3,810 blazes in dormitories, fraternities and sororities annually, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Those fires result in an annual average of two deaths, 30 injuries and $9 million in property damage, and they most often occur in September and October.

Randall Wright, an inspector with the L.A. County Fire Department, agrees with the fire protection association that some of the greatest hazards in college housing are overloaded extension cords and electrical outlets, unattended cooking and candles.

Add to that students arriving with their computers, appliances and gadgets to older dormitories whose wiring often isn’t built to handle the electronics overload.

Wright believes the maturity that occurs in college should extend to safety.

“Learning to live with others, it’s really on the student to get that new level of maturity to realize that unlike at home, their actions can now affect many others,” he said.

Don Neal, Southern California Edison’s (SCE) director of Corporate Environmental, Health and Safety, also recommends checking with the school’s rules before using electronics in the dorm room, noting that schools usually have a list of prohibited items.

“Students should also plug only one high-wattage appliance into an outlet and that appliance should never be plugged into an extension cord,” said Neal. “When used, extension cords should be strictly temporary.”

Appliances that heat should not be used around notebooks, loose papers and anything combustible since they can ignite if the contact is too close. Yet, unattended cooking is the biggest culprit in college housing fires, with cooking equipment involved in 84 percent of them on average, according to the fire association.

For Wright, it makes smoke detectors indispensable.

Every room should have one and they should be tested monthly, he said. They should never be disabled and their batteries should be changed at least every six months.

“College is an experience like few others,” said Neal. “That experience can be enjoyed more safely when the high-powered electronics and appliances that students bring from home are not left unsupervised or used improperly.”

Topics: Safety