Column | Dec. 4

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

The Princeton administration is undoubtedly dedicated to keeping its students as safe as possible. But in the process of pursuing policies that promote safety, it seems that the administration has chosen to unnecessarily emphasize some aspects of campus safety over others. Case in point: fire safety.

According to the annual fire safety reports published by the Department of Public Safety, there was a single fire in campus residential housing in 2012, three fires in 2011, nine fires in 2010 (of which 4 occurred in the graduate student houses) and four fires in 2009. What’s more, over the course of 14 fires in four years, the only damage incurred to the University or its inhabitants was the damage of two microwaves.

In contrast, take another activity that is commonly associated with a high incidence of college student injury or even death — high-risk drinking. According to P-Safe, on campus in 2012 there were 28 judicial referrals for liquor law violations and zero arrests; in 2011, there were 35 referrals and zero arrests; in 2010, there were 33 referrals and zero arrests; in 2009, there were 90 referrals and 10 arrests; and in 2008, there were 109 referrals and 10 arrests.

Clearly, alcohol abuse is more prolific an issue on campus than is fire danger. Part of the reason that the numbers are so skewed might be attributed to the different rhetoric espoused by the administration in regard to the two aforementioned issues. During freshman orientation week, fire safety was introduced as a rigid, line-in-the-sand issue — if you broke a fire safety regulation, you were fined, end of story. Further, such regulations included violations like blocking or obstructing routes of egress, improperly using electrical cords, propping open doors or owning an unapproved appliance. In total, there are 20 such rules that must be obeyed, as well as fines ranging from $25 to $100 per violation. Of course, the rules aren’t entirely set in stone. But in order to, for instance, petition that an appliance be added to the “approved appliances” list, students must first “read the technical criteria” of said appliance, then “make an appointment” to bring the appliance to the manager of dormitories, all the while aware that “disassembly of the appliance may be required to examine it.”

On the other hand, alcohol safety was presented in a more lax light, based in large part on a policy of self-responsibility. Indeed, Princeton’s alcohol policy reads “students are expected and encouraged to be aware of the social, physiological, psychological consequences and personal risks of excessive drinking in order to make responsible and informed decisions about the service and consumption of alcohol.” Emphasis of “personal risk.” That is not to say that P-Safe will not or does not crack down on alcohol violations (they explicitly prohibit students from serving hard liquor, for instance); they certainly do. But their actions do not entail random searches of dormitory rooms and are on the whole less intrusive or extreme as those of the fire safety program.

From a national standpoint, approximately 3,800 university housing fires occur annually, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, and of those 3,800, 88 percent result from cooking fires (it is notable to point out that the majority of Princeton dormitories don’t have kitchens themselves). Further, according to the USFA, the fires cause “a yearly average of zero deaths and 25 injuries.” In contrast, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes” and “599,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are unintentionally injured under the influence of alcohol.” Thus, low rates of fire safety issues nationwide indicate that the equally low rates of fire hazard incidence on campus are not necessarily a result of the excellence of our fire program, but rather a national trend. At the same time, the data indicates that alcohol-related incidents are, nationally, a much more prolific safety issue, just as it is at Princeton.

Interestingly, since Princeton’s inception, fires have been responsible for major damage to University buildings on only six occasions — Nassau Hall in 1802 and 1855, Marquand Chapel and Dickinson Hall in 1920, John C. Green School of Science in 1928, University Gymnasium in 1944 and Whig Hall in 1969. In all six cases, which were the most severe instances of significant conflagrations to occur on campus property, no loss of life occurred, and only one injury was reported.

It can be argued that we, being college students, are intrinsically more prone to get involved in alcohol related activities — after all, partying and drinking with friends is fun, lighting furniture on fire and staring into the flames is not. What’s more, it may be Fire Safety’s vigilance and strict adherence to rules that has allowed the University to remain unscathed from major fire damage. Thus, this is in no way an attempt to condemn the work that the University does to keep students safe on a daily basis. It just seems that there is at times a disjoint between the amount of resources and effort invested into policies like fire safety and the resulting benefit derived, in terms of students helped. Maybe it’s time the University re-evaluate its programs and its focus more heavily on other aspects of student safety.

Jason Choe is a freshman from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at jasonjc@princeton.edu.

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