Fire Dept: “Students are a top risk”

Harriet Russell - Deputy News Editor 8 October 2009

The City of Cambridge Fire Department has confirmed that students are the highest risk group for causing fire emergencies. This has come to light after Fire Safety Officers were called to 113 fires on student premises in the last year alone.

Many current students – especially the 2009 Freshers – will be well aware of the efforts made by Colleges and the University to inform and educate about fire prevention and sensible precaution with fire safety but after speaking to Jim Meikle, a Community Fire Officer for Cambridge City, it is clear that they wish to take a stronger initiative regarding fire safety among University students.

Mr Meikle told The Cambridge Student (TCS): “It is a fact that students are considered the highest risk group in a domestic setting.”

This may seem a shock statistic to some but Mr Meikle explained further: “We can’t be surprised. Many of the students have been let loose for the first time, they’re having fun and things are likely to go wrong at some point.”

We asked Mr Meikle what he supposes are the primary causes of the 113 fires on student premises reported last year: “So often it’s just foolish actions caused by fatigue, the workload and general stress. At the weekend however, it seems to change to students who have been drinking and tend to fall asleep whilst cooking late at night.”

These claims follow, among others, two incidents reported by The Cambridge Student last year. In October 2008, a plastic traffic cone was melted on a hob in King’s College and clothes caught fire when they were placed on a hob in Robinson College in November of the same year.

Mr Meikle refuted a suggestion that call outs for such easily preventable incidents were a waste of resources: “113 incidents is not a waste, it’s just concerning. We can’t say that we could have prevented every fire but we can certainly look to reduce the numbers that arise.

“It’s not a waste because lives are potentially in jeopardy. What is a waste; however, are the calls we get to attend incidents that turn out to be purely malicious and false. For example, if someone has tampered with a fire alarm simply to force students out of bed in the middle of the night as a cruel joke.”

Most students will be aware of the lengths that colleges go to in order to educate their residents about fire safety. There are extensive notices in most college rooms and students are usually asked to sign a hard copy of a Fire and Emergency Evacuation Procedure in order to show their college that they have understood.

When asked about whether the colleges could do anymore than they do now Mr Meikle told TCS: “The colleges are so pro-active and in my view they have totally fulfilled their role. I would maybe just stress the importance of fire alarms – they are so important – they can detect smoke in 60 seconds. Fire is not the killer, it is smoke. What really impresses me is that the colleges make their fire safety a continuous initiative.”

When asked about new courses of action for the foreseeable future, Mr Meikle had this to say: “We’re really looking to work more intensively in freshers’ week. Many students will hardly remember their safety talks form first year so we wanted to be more influential.

“We’re trying to work much more closely with CUSU Welfare Officers to influence lifestyle choices made by young students. Students are so conscious these days – for example about the environment and healthy food – so why not safety?”

Mr Meikle also explained to TCS that there would be increased publicity in the lead up to the many Christmas parties and again before the onset of May Week next year. He believes that segmented action will be more effective in the long term than simply increasing preventative education.

To make fire safety education more interactive, Mr Meikle also informed TCS of their new kitchen fire demonstrations unit which will be seen in and around Cambridge showing students how to maintain fire safety and what course of action to pursue should a fire break out.

Mr Meikle went on to emphasise the severity of fines and penalties for students should fire alarms be tampered with for no reason. He told TCS: “Your College will always find out if your alarm has been tampered with unnecessarily. Depending on the severity of the misbehaviour you could face expulsion, face financial fines up to thousands of pounds or you could face a jail sentence of 2 years.”

Mr Meikle continued with advice for students: “Don’t mess with fire extinguishers. They can save your life and to do so they need to be full and in the right place. Never prop open fire doors; they have to be closed to be effective. Do not have candles in your room and try to monitor cooking continuously.” It might seem like obvious advice to some but for many misdemeanours the culprit can face fines from their college in the range of £50-£400.

When asking a range of students for their opinion on the issue many shared the same view.

Daniel Spencer, a second year student of Girton College, told TCS: “I’ve never come across anyone causing unnecessary fires in my time here so far. I think it’s a little unfair and that students sometimes get a bad reputation overall, which is based on a few immature examples.”

The University made it clear to TCS that they could not confirm whether students were the highest risk group as their sole dealings are with students and staff and so any comparison or conclusion is near to impossible. A spokesman for the University further added: “The University takes fire safety very seriously. We have a central fire safety team which can advise students and staff on the best practice and provide training if they need it. Should students feel they need more information, we believe the best thing to do is consult JCR representatives from their college or representatives from the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU).”

CUSU President Tom Chigbo and Welfare Officer Amiya Bhatia spoke to TCS: “We’ve been in conversation with the City of Cambridge Fire Department for a while as we want to deliver a student voice in the wider community. The autonomy of many Cambridge colleges limits our involvement with them and their safety education. We should also stress how difficult it is to ‘teach’ safety as it’s much more of an attitude.”

CUSU also highlighted the fact that Cambridge may not be alone in these statistics as it is a common problem at most UK Universities.

CUSU President Tom Chigbo added: “I don’t think the answer is to take away student kitchen facilities like hobs as we have to show equal respect to the responsible individuals who want to learn how to live like an adult.”

Finally, CUSU Welfare Officer, Amiya Bhatia, told TCS: “What’s most important to emphasise is our desire to continue working with the local community. Prevention and pro-action are equally important, we can’t just focus on one alone. We have to recognise that there are plenty of responsible students here as well.”

Harriet Russell – Deputy News Editor