Immediately following the 2005 fire that claimed the lives of three Miami University students, the university community turned its attention to fire safety. Forums were held, smoke detector batteries were checked and students could be heard discussing the conditions of their own homes. But two years later, that dialogue has largely faded.
The current junior and senior classes were on campus during the April 10, 2005 fire, but after graduation this May only one class of students who were in Oxford during the tragedy will remain. According to Bobbe Burke, director of the Office of Off-Campus Affairs, that makes a difference.
“Relatively soon all the people who knew (the students who passed away) will not be here,” Burke said. “They’ll all be gone. We have to push the topic to raise it up to the consciousness of other people. If it hasn’t touched your life you won’t be thinking about it.”
Oxford Fire Chief Len Endress said he thought the issue of fire safety was prevalent enough in the national news to keep the topic on students’ minds, but did acknowledge that over time Miami students have become less cognizant of what has happened in Oxford.
“I think the only real thing that’s dropping off is unfortunately there are not as many people now that if you mention the fire are even aware that it happened,” Endress said.
Despite this decline in awareness, Endress said that Miami students have been fortunate this academic year. He estimated that the Oxford Fire Department has responded to about 25 calls from students living off campus, but they have been regarding smells of smoke, alarms going off or small fires that were already extinguished by the time firefighters arrived. However, Endress stressed that in the case of a fire, students should always call the fire department immediately.
While Endress said that there are still students living in off-campus residences with substandard fire safety devices, there have been changes in the city that have lead to more secure living conditions.
This year, the city of Oxford updated its fire code by adopting the 2005 International Code Council (ICC) Ohio Fire Code. Previously, the city had been operating under the 2003 ICC code. According to Endress, the new code contains several new fire safety protections such as increasing the authority of officials to issue stop work orders when construction is being completed in a dangerous way. Under the old code, officials could still issue stop work orders, but the new one makes it easier to do so.
A change that may impact students more directly is the construction of new off-campus rental units, many of which are equipped with sprinklers and hardwired smoke detectors.
According to Endress, the best possible conditions for students to live in are homes with sprinklers and hardwired smoke detectors that are connected to a central station. With these detectors, if an alarm goes off the central station is automatically notified and immediately calls the fire department. That way, the fire department is alerted even if students are asleep, not home or unable to respond to the alarm for any reason.
Endress said that local property management companies have begun to meet this higher standard for several reasons.
“The thing we have noticed is that fire safety is becoming a selling point for a property owner,” Endress said. He added that in many cases owners receive insurance breaks for putting in sprinklers, which can help compensate for the added cost of installing them.
Oxford Real Estate and CKC, Inc. are two companies that Endress identified as taking extra precautions. Pam Lindley, business operations administrator of Hotel Development Services; the company that includes CKC, Inc.; said that her company installs sprinklers and hardwired smoke detectors when remodeling existing properties.
“It’s something where if we’re in there we might as well do it,” Lindley said. “It kind of goes along with why are we doing remodels, in order to go along with the market and give students what they want today as opposed to what they wanted 15 years ago.”
Lindley explained that in the past, students’ primary concern was finding a house close to campus and uptown. But with an increase in housing options, she said that students now seek nicer houses that are more similar to the homes they live in with their parents.
Donna Gross, a property manager for Oxford Real Estate, said that while many of the properties that her company manages have recently upgraded their fire safety devices, the change has not come in response to student requests.
“It wasn’t something that people came to us asking for,” Gross said. “It was something that (the property owners) opted to do on their own because as the owner of the property it gives them peace of mind.”
Gross said that fire safety is not an issue that students usually bring up when asking questions about a house, but that she is sure to point out things such as fire safety devices when showing a property.
“Maybe we aren’t noticing them asking (about) it because we are initiating the conversations,” Gross said. “But I haven’t really noticed it being an issue with anyone.”
Lindley also said that her company performs rental inspections during March and April, and she is always surprised to see that many students have disabled the devices that were installed to protect them.
“When we go in to do our rental inspections it’s amazing to see how many smoke detectors the students have pulled the batteries out of,” she said.
Immediately following the 2005 fire, Gross said that students seemed much more concerned about their safety.
“We probably noticed (increased student concern about fire safety) for about four or five months after the initial fire just because it was so in the forefront for everyone,” she said.
Now, Gross said that questions about things like sprinkler systems typically come from the renters’ parents, and they are usually not asked until after the leases have already been signed.
Lindley said she notices a similar trend, and she hopes Miami students will use the memory of their classmates to keep their own safety in mind.
“The awareness was so strong after those students were killed, and I think that it has calmed down now,” Lindley said. “If there is going to be anything good coming from those students passing away, hopefully it would be the safety of future students.”