Dormitory fire safety

According to FEMA1, college dormitory fires cause an average of nine fatalities per year, with another 35 fire-related injuries. Seventy percent of dormitory fires happen during the weekends, with 73 percent of the fatal fires occurring between midnight and 6 a.m.  In each fatality case fire sprinklers were not present. Smoking was the leading cause of fire fatalities in campus housing, followed by intentional actions, electrical, and cooking incidents. Smoke alarms were either missing or tampered with (disconnected or battery removed) in 58 percent of fatal campus fires. In addition, alcohol increases the risk of fire as well as slowing reaction time of those present. In fact, alcohol was a factor in 76 percent of all campus fire fatalities. Institutional leaders should consider the following when preparing fire safety risk management policies.


Fire sprinkler systems

There should be working fire sprinkler system and hard-wired smoke detection and alarms in every dormitory room with CO2 alarms outside of every sleeping area. Sprinkler systems or alarm systems should never be tampered with or shut off, and a clearance of at least 18 inches should be maintained around sprinkler heads. If any residents are hearing challenged, make sure the dorm room is equipped with smoke alarms having a vibrating pad, flashing light, or strobe light. These accessories start when the alarm sounds.


Smoking materials

Many institutions of higher learning prohibit the use of smoking materials and candles in all institutional living areas, which is the simplest and most effective action step to initiate.  If the institution decides to allow smoking in the dormitories, then deep, wide ashtrays should be present. Ashtrays should be placed on a stable, noncombustible stand to reduce fire hazard if the stand overturns. Cigarette ashes should be completely extinguished before being discarded, and cigarette butts should be checked for in combustible furniture after large gatherings. If candles, incense or other potential ignition sources are used, keep combustibles clear of them. Candles or incense holders should be placed on a stable, non-combustible surface where they are not likely to be bumped or knocked off their resting place. Residents should extinguish all candles and incense prior to leaving the room or going to sleep.



To reduce electrical fires, extension cords should be avoided where possible. If they are used, the electrical cord should be of proper size for the application, and not run under rugs, through doorways or overloaded. If space heaters are allowed, these should be properly guarded electrical heaters and kept clear of any combustible materials (such as curtains, bedding, and clothing). Any utility issues such as tripped breakers, non-functioning appliances, hot or shorting outlets, or similar issues should be reported immediately, with follow-up to ensure the repairs are performed in a timely manner. Storing rubbish and other flammable items away from electrical boxes, outlets, hot water heaters and cooking appliances reduces fire hazard exposure.



Dormitories may have restrictions on the type of cooking appliances allowed, and these restrictions should be followed. Cooking areas should be kept clean and free of any combustible material. High temperatures should be kept to a minimum when cooking, and fire extinguishers should be available. If a fire starts in a microwave, residents should keep the door closed and unplug the unit. Cooking appliances should be attended always during operation.


Student safety training

For most college and university students, going to college and living away from home presents more freedom in making personal choices as well as increased responsibilities for themselves and others. To ensure students understand their responsibilities regarding fire prevention, all students living in either on- or off-campus housing should receive mandatory training on fire prevention, including but not limited to:

  • Facts on dormitory fires including,
    •  Fatalities, injuries, increased risk from alcohol etc.
  • Policies on smoking, candles/incense, space heaters, as well as the consequences for failing to follow them.
  • Emergency evacuation routes (each room should have at least two means of egress)
  • Emergency response and communication including advisory to:
    • Leave as soon as possible. Do not wait to gather personal belongings. Get out and stay out. Do not use an elevator in case of fire. Test the door for hot areas before you open them. If anything feels hot, leave the door shut and seek another means of escape. Stay low when escaping from a fire.
  • Steps to take if caught in a fire including advisory to:
    • Keep doors closed and fill cracks in doors with damp clothes to keep smoke out. Call the fire department and tell them where you are located, while signaling with a light-colored cloth from a window.
    • If you are on fire, stop, drop and roll to extinguish the fire.
  • Strategies for preventing electrical fires
  • Strategies for preventing cooking fires

For a convenient checklist to help you keep abreast of fire safety issues in the dormitory, visit our Dormitory fire safety checklist here.

For more information about laundry facilities in dormitories, see our advisory, preventing clothes dryer fires here.

Information for this document was taken from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code 2018 edition.


 1FEMA; US Department of Homeland Security; U.S. Fire Administration; National Fire Data Center; Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727  


This material is provided for informational purposes only and does not provide any coverage or guarantee loss prevention. The examples in this material are provided as hypothetical and for illustration purposes only. The Hanover Insurance Company and its affiliates and subsidiaries (“The Hanover”) specifically disclaim any warranty or representation that acceptance of any recommendations contained herein will make any premises, or operation safe or in compliance with any law or regulation. By providing this information to you, The Hanover does not assume (and specifically disclaims) any duty, undertaking or responsibility to you. The decision to accept or implement any recommendation(s) or advice contained in this material must be made by you.


LC 2021-321