Back to School Safely

Code Insider July 2020

As I write this, the country is easing its way out of lockdown. It has been an extraordinary time, but not in a good way, because right now we don’t know when things will get back to the new normal. Much of our lives has been put on hold. All kinds of events have been postponed or canceled, including weddings and funerals. My 50th high school reunion was rescheduled for September. High school and college graduations went virtual. Many 2020 graduates won’t have the luxury of rescheduling their graduation ceremonies because they will have already embarked on the next phase of their lives. This thought caused me to reminisce about that next phase of life for the high school class of 2020, based on an experience from a few years ago.

We experience many things firsthand, and then when we have kids, we live vicariously through them. I remember each of my sons’ graduations, and I especially remember college move-in day for my oldest son. It is that point in time when parents lose what little control they have in the lives and safety of their kids. In my day, college move-in day was pretty simple. It involved bringing clothes and bedding and little else. The Class of 2020 has more stuff than my generation had, and they are the most connected generation in history. This means that these students have a lot of electronics to move in and, because they live online, all of this stuff is their life-support system.

I was impressed with the number of upperclassmen that were on hand to help out on move-in day. They were wearing golf shirts with the names of fraternities and sororities. A great recruiting tool, unless one considers that, the next year, these recruits could find that they had to help the next class to move in. I saw these upperclassmen moving in television sets, microwave ovens and refrigerators, along with a number of other appliances that were neither essential nor light.

When kids go off to college, this may be their first time on their own. Those of us in safety-related jobs often have the biggest problem letting go, because we know of all of the things that can go wrong. I remember a college dormitory fire in 1977 where 10 students died and 16 others were injured. At the time of the fire, I was a college student myself, working as a dispatcher for a fire department. My department sent mutual aid to the scene of the fire. Indications were that the students were using hair dryers to dry mittens, and there were combustible Christmas decorations that were hung from lighting fixtures. The building was built long before automatic sprinkler systems would have been required. The fire did cause many universities to install fire protection systems in dormitories, fraternities and sororities.

The dorm that my son moved into was clearly built in the 1950s or 1960s. When I noted that every student showed up with all kinds of tech life-support equipment, I was concerned whether the electrical loads could be served safely. Would there be an adequate number of receptacles in the rooms? Would there be zip-cord extension cords everywhere?

I was pleased to see that there were an adequate number of receptacles, and the blade retention was good. Clearly, the university housing department knew what it was dealing with as it had been supporting teenagers for more than 100 years.

Good infrastructure is important, but basic electrical safety practices are critical. The incoming students brought plenty of relocatable power taps (or power strips) and lots of extension cords. Many of the extension cords were light-duty, zip cord extension cords. While I watched, a student connected a small refrigerator using a flimsy extension cord. I warned him that it was a fire hazard. To my amazement, he listened and connected directly to the wall-mounted receptacle. I was also concerned about all of the electrical hazards that I didn’t see. One Code change for the 2020 NEC requires receptacles in dormitories to be tamper-resistant. This requirement will protect young children who may be visiting.

The top priority for the students was getting online. Many connected to the dorm’s Wi-Fi while their boxes sat unopened and their clothes sat on their beds. The school knew what the priorities were, and IT staff patrolled the halls passing out ethernet cables and helping their new residents get online. Since this was an engineering school, none were seen asking for help. Many parents realize that one of the worst parts about their kids going off to school is that they are losing their at-home help desk.

My son marveled at the network speed then joined us in the mundane unpacking tasks. I think that he realized that as soon we were on our way, he could get back to the super fast network.

College is a rite of passage for kids as well as for parents. It is much easier for the kids because they are entering a world where they are surrounded by people of their own age, and there is very little exposure to parents. For those of us safety professionals, the drive home from dropping them off at school is the most difficult because we know what bad things can happen. College students believe they are immortal, and we know they aren’t. We have brought them up wearing seat belts and bike helmets, despite being told that other parents didn’t make their kids do any of that. How could we be sure that he would be safe? Fortunately, my son went to a school known for its electrical and fire-protection engineering programs. Those two programs mean the school has a safety culture. They have some of the most effective influencers of all: peers in their own age group.

There are things that they need to learn, such as sprinkler heads aren’t good places to hang clothes. If they aren’t careful, the clothes will get wet, along with everything else. Flexible cords under carpets and stapled cords can cause fires, causing those sprinkler heads to operate, which will also get everything wet, including that millennial life-support equipment. They also need to learn not to use cheap extension cords.

Every student showed up with all kinds of tech life-support equipment. I was concerned whether the electrical loads could be served safely. Would there be an adequate number of receptacles in the rooms?

As we left campus, I started to think about the price of college room and board, particularly since it is a recurring cost for at least four years. Driving home, we noted a lot of old tenement buildings nearby with “for rent” signs hanging in the windows. It occurred to me that they would probably be a lot less expensive than the dorms, but would they be as safe?

As students progress through their college years, they usually insist on the freedom of living off-campus. At some schools, only freshman are allowed to live in dorms, due to space limits. Of the 18 million students enrolled in college, 12 million live in off-campus housing. Both of my sons did in their final years of college.

Off-campus housing is often a mixed bag. Many units are older houses that turn over every year. They can be in marginal condition, and students are tough tenants. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, an agency under the Federal Emergency Agency, just 6% of fatal campus-related fires occurred on campus. Off-campus housing accounted for 94% of the fatal fires. The largest percentage of the fires were attributed to smoking. Electrical causes accounted for 11% of the fires.

Virginia Tech student unlocks door with phone app
A Virginia Tech student unlocks his door with a smartphone app.

Students are rarely good stewards of their rooms, and the rooms can take a real beating during the school year. However, colleges and universities have staff that keep up the properties and will usually repair the rooms after the students have left for the summer—or pandemic. That extra cost for ongoing maintenance is worth it.

How good is the maintenance of the off-campus housing? It is going to vary. For many properties, if it can be leased again without doing anything more that sweeping the floors, it will be. I know of many students who have done the maintenance for a reduction in (the already overpriced) rent. Safe off-campus housing can be found. NFPA and USFA offer checklists that can be helpful guides to look for hazards in off-campus housing.

College is the time for the students to spread their wings. It is hard to impress safety messages upon them, particularly at this point in their lives. If they hear about safety while growing up, they will remember it. The schools can also have an influence on safety. This year has been a unique year that has been dominated by a safety issue. Hopefully, the next generation has acquired an appreciation that safe practices do make a difference in the outcome.

About the Author

Mark Earley

Mark Earley, P.E., is the chief electrical engineer. Retired from the National Fire Protection Association, he was secretary of the National Electrical Code Committee for 30 years.

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