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Aug 17

Couch Fires

By Ed Comeau

Fires that start in couches on porches and decks are a pretty big problem in off-campus housing. In April 2010, a student was killed in an off-campus house fire that started in a couch and there have been a lot of other fires that started in couches out on porches.

Since January 2000, Campus Firewatch ( has found 33 incidents involving porches and nine of them were fatal ones, killing 20 people. This is 14% of all of the fire fatalities since 2000, a significant number.

Always seems to be the same scenario...the fire breaks out in the middle of the night, after a party, on a porch or deck. Since it is outside, smoke alarms (if the house has them) don't pick up the smoke and the alarm is sounded by someone passing by. By that time the fire has a pretty big head start and when it does move into the house through a window or door, it is really ripping. Now people are trapped or having to jump out of upstairs windows to get away.

The most common cause?

A cigarette.

Where do the couches come from?

In a study done by Lt. Amy Brow from the Ann Arbor Fire Department of the area around the University of Michigan she found that most of the couches, by far, had been left by the previous tenant. 
  • Left by previous tenant: 86 
  • Donated by family or friend: 40 
  • Trash picked: 16 
  • Don't know: 3 
A number of communities have passed ordinances banning couches because of their fire and health hazards (sitting in the rain and snow, month after month????). However, many still have not.

What can you do?

If you have a couch, what you MUST do is make sure that each night you check it to make sure there isn't a cigarette smoldering down in the cushion. Use real ashtrays when smoking out there, not improvised ones. Empty the trash OUTSIDE of the house. If someone put a smoldering cigarette butt in the trash, don't take it INSIDE the house, empty the trash outside, away from the house so that if it breaks out in the middle of the night it doesn't spread to the house.

Just be careful, ok?

Aug 17

Where Do People Die

By Ed Comeau

Since January 2000, when Campus Firewatch started tracking campus-related fatalities, four out of five of the deaths happen in off-campus housing.  That is over 80% of the fire deaths.  Why?

Well, no one has done a definitive study, but I have a few ideas.

  • Off-campus housing is, what I would call, tired.  OK, run down.  Beat up.  You know what I mean.
  • Students living off-campus aren't limited by rules in the residence halls such as smoking, candles or alcohol.
  • Those living off-campus now have to cook for themselves...sometimes for the first time in their life!
  • Parties.  More on this in a minute.

OK, let's talk about how a number of the fires have started.

  • At night.  A vast majority of ALL fatal fires start at night when people are sleeping.
  • The smoke alarms have been disabled for whatever reason.
  • A cigarette butt has rolled down into a seat cushion and lies there smoldering until it breaks out in flames.
  • A large number of fires have started in couches on porches and decks.  When a fire starts there, it has time to grow into a pretty big fire before getting into the house through a window.  Almost universally, it is a passerby that sees the fire and raises the alarm.
  • So many of these fires break out after a party when the occupants have been drinking.  What does this mean?  Their reaction time is drastically changed, and not for the better.  A study done of students determined that your ability to respond to an alarm drops SIGNIFICANTLY after just one beer.  The decrease is not as significant (but still there) after more than one beer.  So, the greatest risk occurs after just drinking your first beer.

What can you do?

  • Know two ways out, no matter where you are. Your room, your house, your dorm, a restaurant, a movie theater.  You never, ever know when you will need it.
  • Cigarettes.  If people are smoking in your house or at your party, have lots of ashtrays.  Real ones, not improvised ones like beer bottles or, worse, the trash can.
  • Check the seat cushions before going to bed, make sure a cigarette isn't sitting there.  Don't forget the couch on the porch.
  • Before you go to bed, take out the trash and take it away from the building.  If there is a smoldering cigarette in there, let it break out outside and away from your house.
  • Smoke alarms.  You should have one on every level, outside of every bedroom and, for maximum protection, in the bedroom as well.
  • However, if they aren't working, it doesn't matter how many you have.  Don't ever, ever disable them.