Proposed bill requires schools to report annual campus fire incidents

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bill requiring colleges and universities to release information about their fire safety and prevention measures will join a handful of campus fire safety bills currently before Congressional committees when Rep. Bill Pascrell (R-N.J.) reintroduces the Campus Right to Know Act this month.

Rep. Pascrell originally introduced the bill in 2000 after a fire at Seton Hall University in New Jersey killed three students and injured 58. Ed Comeau, director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, said Pascrell distributed a letter to Congress on behalf of the center. The letter relays the news of a late March fire at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., that critically injured a student. It also says that guests in hotels are more protected than students in university residence halls due to safety measures the hospitality industry adopted after a spate of fires in the 1980s.

“The traveling public has a higher level of fire safety than the youth of our country, the future generation,” the letter said. “Let’s use this fire at George Washington as a ‘wake-up’ call and start ensuring that the students are as equally protected and receive an education in fire safety along with their degree.”

While the federal Clery Act mandates that all public and private institutions that receive federal funds publish annual campus crime statistics, no equivalent measure exists to track campus fires. Under the Campus Right to Know Act, schools would have to release the number of annual fires on campus as well as the number of residence hall beds protected by sprinklers and alarms.

The Princeton Review, a company that ranks colleges and universities across the country, is the sole resource for parents and prospective students looking to evaluate a school’s fire safety features, Comeau said. He helps compile the Review’s annual fire safety rankings and said universities voluntarily submit their information. Verification of its accuracy is impossible, he said.

“There’s no requirement that schools provide any sort of information on fire safety except for arson fires,” he said.

Because arson fires are crimes, schools must disclose them under the Clery Act, he said.

Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Counsel on Education, said that although she has not seen a copy of the legislation, she fears the act’s disclosure requirements could overburden an educational system “already saturated with data requests.”

“It’s been our experience that when things that sound benign go through the machinery of the Department of Education and are converted to regulation, they can get quite complicated,” she said.

Timmons said that when Congress enacted the Clery Act in 1990, committees became mired in days of debate to establish definitions for crimes such as forcible rape. She said she fears the Campus Right to Know Act will spark similar confusion.

Chris Simmons, assistant director of government relations at the ACE, said that few parents and prospective students will utilize the information made available if Congress passes the fire safety disclosure act.

“If a school has two fires or no fires, is that valuable to know?” he said.

He said parents and prospective students rarely consider campus crime and fire rates when choosing schools, citing New York University in Manhattan and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as schools in high crime areas that attract record numbers of applicants.

Nevertheless, parents need all the facts, said John Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association. He said parents should never assume that “up to code” means “safe” when it comes to evaluating a school’s residence halls, particularly regarding those built decades ago when sprinklers and alarms were not standard safety features.

“A lot of colleges and universities are going back and doing retrofittings,” he said. “Other schools aren’t.”

Other campus fire safety bills currently before congress include the College Fire Prevention Act, introduced on Jan. 4 by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, introduced on March 3 to the House and Senate by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

The College Fire Prevention Act would award grants to schools to install fire safety measures and the Sprinkler Incentive Act would “classify fire sprinkler systems as five-year property for purposes of depreciation,” according to the legislation. Schools would receive federal funds to replace the equipment after five years.

Jim Dalton, director of public fire prevention for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said some of those bills have been before Congress for four years without approval and implementation.

“I don’t think the climate in Washington is good for something that’s going to cost somebody money,” he said. “I don’t see Congress doling out money this year to help with retrofitting sprinklers.”

Dalton said he thinks the Campus Right to Know Act has a better chance because “it’s not dollars involved.”

–By Kate Campbell