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Adulting 101: Fire safe strategies to reach college students

Connect with RAs to help share kitchen safety tips, provide fire extinguisher training, and underscore proper use of small appliances


Coastal Carolina University students speak with a Myrtle Beach Fire Department member about cooking safety in college dorms.

Photo/Captain Christian Sliker MPIO, FM

By Christian Sliker and Jonathan Evans

College can be a great adventure for many young people making their way into the world for the first time. It may also be the first time they’ve ventured into the “real world” without their parents present to provide direction and generally manage their life – but also keep them safe. Some college students will be doing their own laundry for the first time, cleaning up their rooms without directives, and possibly even cooking for themselves if the cafeteria is serving mystery meat that day.

Cooking fires account for 44% of all residential fires with 72% of those fires occurring in apartment housing, like dorms, so it is critical for college students to know basic fire safety when cooking in a kitchen – or anywhere, really – but how can you reach them?

Find the boss

The best way to promote fire safety in a college setting is to start with resident advisors (RAs), essentially the “designated adults” in the dorms. RAs hold many responsibilities, including facilitating student activities and ensuring the students follow dorm rules. They tend to have a good relationship with students, are well-versed in dorm safety, and have a command-like presence within the building.

RAs may be the fire department’s best bet at connecting with students. Make sure RAs are covering key safety talks with the students:

  • General kitchen safety tips (particularly vital if there is a shared kitchen on the floor or in a room suite).
  • The importance of fire extinguishers and how to use them. Note: The NFPA recommends that students first get proper training on the use of fire extinguishers.
  • The dangers associated with improper microwaves or hot plates use.

Only you can prevent kitchen fires

When talking with students, it’s important that the RA or fire department representative ensure that students know the dangers associated with cooking. Underscore how easy it is to get distracted, perhaps watching the latest TikTok trend, so it’s essential to forego multi-tasking in favor of uni-tasking – focus on cooking while cooking.

It’s also important to recognize the power of fatigue. College life can also be exhausting for students juggling loaded class schedules and extracurricular activities. Underscore that if students are going to cook something, they should be alert and able to remain fully awake and focused. Falling asleep while cooking is a serious hazard. Pro-tip to share: For late-night snacking, it’s best to either eat something that doesn’t need heating or order takeout.

Lastly, ensure that students know to NEVER EVER put water on a grease fire, as it will only make the fire worse and possibly cause them to be burned in the process.

P.A.S.S. on knowledge about fire extinguishers

Fire extinguishers are a great tool that can be found in most commercial buildings and are becoming more prevalent in residential settings as well. The problem: Most people have never learned how to use them.

It’s important for fire departments to work with RAs and students to make sure that everyone knows where the extinguishers are located. It’s also important for RAs or maintenance staff to check these extinguishers at least once a month to ensure that they are properly charged and ready for action.

Training on the use of fire extinguishers should be handled by a qualified professional – maybe even you! Teaching the P.A.S.S. method (Pull the pin, Aim the Nozzle, Squeeze and hold the handles, and Sweep slowly back and forth) can help save someone’s life or keep a fire from getting bigger.

Minor appliances can still cause a major issue

Every college has different rules about dorm life, but most will let students have at least a microwave, possibly even a hot plate, in the room for quick meals. These appliances are a bit safer but can still cause problems if not used properly.

Microwaves are generally safe as long as students don’t metal in them, but they should still be inspected to make sure that they are plugged in completely and on a stable surface so that they don’t fall over. One major mistake: not putting in water in the microwavable mac and cheese or ramen noodles. Emphasize the importance of following the instructions!

Hot plates are a little more dangerous but can also be used safely as long as students keep loose clothing – and really anything that can burn – at least a foot away from them. Emphasize the need to stay with any cooking and turn off the appliance if leaving the room.

Ensure RAs review these safety tips with students and that students are following these simple rules to avoid accidental fire starts.

The final exam

For many students, college is the start of the great “adulting adventure.” It’s vital that your organization recognize its integral role in securing their safety, both now and in the future. So, pack your bags and grab your books – you’re going back to school!

Key talking points

  • Cooking fires account for 44% of all residential fires, with 72% of these fires occurring in apartment housing like dorms. Hence, it’s crucial for college students to know basic fire safety when cooking.
  • Fire safety promotion in colleges should start with resident advisors (RAs) as they have a good relationship with students and are familiar with dorm safety.
  • RAs should cover key safety topics such as general kitchen safety tips, the importance and use of fire extinguishers, and the dangers associated with improper microwave or hot plate use.
  • Students need to understand the dangers of cooking, including the risk of distraction and the effects of fatigue. It’s essential to focus solely on cooking when cooking, and to be fully awake and alert. Students should also understand to never use water on a grease fire.
  • Fire departments should work with RAs to ensure everyone knows where the fire extinguishers are located and how to use them, including the P.A.S.S. method (Pull the pin, Aim the Nozzle, Squeeze and hold the handles, and Sweep slowly back and forth).
  • Students should be educated on the potential risks of using microwaves and hot plates, and the importance of using these appliances correctly. This includes not putting metal in microwaves, ensuring appliances are on a stable surface and not wearing loose clothing or having anything flammable within a foot of hot plates.
  • Fire safety education is a vital part of a student’s transition to adulthood. Fire departments and colleges have a responsibility to ensure students’ safety by providing comprehensive fire safety education.

About the authors

Christian Sliker, MPIO, FM, began his career with the City of Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Fire Department in 2005 and currently holds the rank of deputy fire marshal/captain. In August 2017, Captain Sliker completed FEMA’s Master Public Information Officer program, with his capstone project focused on messaging solutions for tourist-driven areas. During Captain Sliker’s time as public educator, the Myrtle Beach Fire Department won the Richard S. Campbell Award for Excellence in Public Education 8 years in a row.

Captain Jonathan Evans is a 17-year veteran of the Myrtle Beach Fire Department, currently working as a deputy fire marshal in charge of community outreach. Captain Evans started his career with MBFD in 2007. Evans has an associate in business with an emphasis on fire administration. Over the past 7 years, Evans has worked to create and improve community outreach programs and represents the department during speaking engagements, neighborhood watch meetings, and recruitment events. Evans is also a member of the MBFD Honor Guard and the Incident Management Team.