EHS & Waste Management

Fire Safety in Universities – What is the Duty of Care ?

By February 3, 2020 No Comments

Providing students with housing means that the responsibility for ensuring that these facilities are safe and are fit for their intended purposes including fire safety in universities comes with a duty of care for the University.

Universities are in control of student housing properties because they either:

  • own or operate such properties, or
  • have approved such properties for student occupancy, or
  • have certified that such properties meet the university’s minimum safety standards.

Owning or controlling student housing imposes on universities a “duty of due care” to ensure that the structures are safe for their intended purposes.  This duty is owed to those who may occupy or use such structures and requires that the university not act negligently in its ownership, operation, or control of them.

One party’s “duty” to another is shaped by the nature of liability under the law and the type of claims filed when fire loss occurs.   A duty is often equated with “what can reasonably be expected of a party in the circumstances, given that party’s knowledge, capability, and experience.”  Findings of negligence do not typically follow those who responsibly fulfill their duty.

College and university administrators are well aware of college age students’ propensity for reckless, ignorant, stupid, or drunken conduct, especially in off‐campus housing where supervision and rule enforcement are often absent.  There’s a certain predictability to student conduct (and misconduct), and universities are in the best position to observe and understand it.  It’s clear that, generally, these young adults are in many respects still children, lacking the life‐management skills, attentiveness, and experience needed to manage personal safety, especially regarding fire.  Moreover, the common characteristics and risks of the environments (on and off‐campus) in which students live are known or knowable.      Being in this position and having such knowledge arguably imposes a duty on colleges and universities to “govern” students in manner that responsibly addresses these known propensities and shortcomings.

American universities generally have a responsibility to provide a fire‐safe environment; the duty includes taking action reasonably likely to succeed in accomplishing the objective, and that demonstrates the exercise of “best efforts” to provide safe lodging for students.

The question at hand with regards to fire safety in Universities: what actions and policy work well, and which are just window dressing or going through the motions?  This distinction becomes critical in determining whether the university has fulfilled its duty.

The “duty of care” regarding fire safety in Universities includes the duty to:

Develop and implement policies and programs designed to effectively address and minimize the risk of fire.

  • Provide housing structures for students that are compliant with applicable fire and life safety codes and standards.
  • Only approve for student occupancy structures that meet such standards and codes (this includes fraternity houses and off‐campus student housing).
  • Ensure that owned and non‐university‐owned student residences they approve for use as student dwellings are properly inspected for compliance with fire‐and‐life‐safety standards and codes.
  • Implement technology to reduce the risk of fire and aid compliance, for example a barcode fire extinguisher inspection system or life safety inspection system with a mobile app

The duty of ensuring a fire‐safe environment includes adequately publishing and disseminating all fire safety policy, instructions, rules, procedures, and information essential to fire safety both generally and as it pertains to particular buildings.

Fire Safety In Universities – The Higher Education Opportunity Act (Public Law 110‐315 – signed into law in August 2008) requires universities to include in their annual fire‐safety  reports to the Department of Education their policies on  fire‐safety education and training programs provided to  students, faculty, and staff.  Under that Act campuses are also required to publicly provide:

  • Statistics for each on campus student housing facility, including the number of fires and causes; number of injuries and deaths related to fires; and the value of property damage caused by fires.
  • Descriptions of each on‐campus student housing facility’s fire safety systems.
  • The number of mandatory, supervised fire drills.
  • Policies or rules on portable electronic appliances; smoking and open flames; evacuation procedures.
  • Plans for future fire safety improvements, if needed.
  • An annual report to the campus community.

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