Summer is quickly coming to an end, and college students around the country are loading up the family SUVs and returning to campus. Fresh-faced 18-year-olds get their first taste of freedom as they cram everything they own into a 10’x10’ cinder block room shared with a stranger, and living in close quarters in a building with a couple hundred other kids is a rite of passage. But with the new freedom of living away from home comes new responsibilities, like remembering to turn the hotplate off before leaving for class and keeping an eye on the microwave during those late-night cravings for ramen.

According to The Center for Campus Fire Safety, August and September tend to be “the worst time of year for fatal campus-related housing fires.” Thus, September has been declared Campus Fire Safety Month, a nationwide effort to raise awareness around college campuses about fire hazards and best safety practices.

Harrington Group, Inc. has completed a number of projects at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), including an extensive installation of sprinklers in every dormitory on campus. The university’s fire marshal works closely with the department of housing, providing annually updated information for resident advisers (RA’s) and organizing events like the “Week of Welcome” fire extinguisher training.

“We had 300 or so students learn how to use fire extinguishers,” said fire safety professional Kitty Lynn. She added that the event was in the pit, a popular spot on campus where students are constantly milling around, and the next extinguisher training will be held on Wednesday, September 9.

According to Lynn, the number of calls related to cooking emergencies made from on-campus dorms has decreased from 259 to 131 over the past five years. That’s a result of the efforts they’ve made over the years to make the dorms safer and less prone to fire, particularly in the kitchens.

“Not just at UNC but everywhere, the most frequent [on-campus] calls are popcorn calls,” Lynn said. “Students put the popcorn in the microwave and then they walk off, and that’s totally wrong.”

To combat this common kitchen blunder, a few years ago Lynn’s department used funds from two grants totaling a half-million dollars to outfit dorm kitchen microwaves with safety sensors. These little gadgets sense smoke coming out of the microwave vent and immediately shut the power off. Also installed in the kitchens were the Safe T Element, a product hardwired into electric stoves that prevents fires by regulating the cooking temperature, making it “hot enough to cook, but not hot enough to catch fire,” Lynn said. The rest of the funds went toward brochures, fliers, posters, and camera equipment so RAs could make training videos for other students.

UNC certainly isn’t the only university making strides to keep students, faculty and staff safe on and off campus. Check out your own school’s calendar for events, and check in with the health and safety departments to learn more about how your school is promoting fire safety awareness. And, come back to our blog for next week’s post, where we’ll cover fire safety tips for students moving back into dorms and off-campus housing.