Published on September 1, 2019.

School Spirit

In advance of the upcoming Campus Fire Forum, a fire marshal at a major university details the myriad demands of campus safety: crowd control, laboratory hazards, student shenanigans, and much more


More News

Beyond Fire
Old misconceptions of NFPA surface during a heated social media debate

International News
A deadly fire in a Japanese animation studio, wildfires in the EU, and more

Flakes Aflame 
Tempura flakes become the latest culprit responsible for spontaneously combusting food

Ecosystem Watch
A collection of recent news items and how they fare in the context of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem

Smokey Turns 75
11 facts about Smokey Bear to mark his 75th birthday 

Imagine overseeing campus fire safety at a major university: tens of thousands of students, staff, and faculty; hundreds of buildings to inspect; events that can draw tens of thousands of visitors; hazard assessment for cutting-edge research, some of which can push the code to the limit; active threat management; and much, much more.

I don’t have to imagine it—as fire marshal at the University of Oklahoma, it’s my daily on-the-job reality. And in truth, sometimes it can feel like trying to drink from a fire hose.

Large college campuses are essentially self-contained cities with an array of unique challenges for fire and safety officials. Being a campus fire marshal doesn’t mean retiring from a local municipality and riding out the rest of your career—far from it. Over the past two decades, the role of the campus fire marshal has become increasingly complex and diverse, expanding to include emergency manager, risk manager, and medical technician. This jack-of-all-trades quality is an absolute necessity for campus fire marshals—surprises and changes to the daily schedule have become the new normal. Along the way, campus fire safety in general has grown into a specialized area of fire protection.

It’s a lot to manage, but help is available. The non-profit Center for Campus Fire Safety (CCFS) advocates for campus fire safety officials at institutions large and small. CCFS was founded after this need was identified during the first national forum on campus fire safety, held in 1999, for campus and public fire officials and hosted by NFPA and the US Fire Administration.

The upcoming Campus Fire Forum in Atlanta will mark the progress of campus fire safety over the past 20 years, achieved in large part through public and private partnerships and adherence to the guiding principles of engineering, education, and enforcement. CCFS forums support campus fire officials by providing an event where experiences and information can be shared, and where solutions to issues like off-campus fire safety are explored and new technologies introduced.

This year’s forum will be a collaboration with Georgia Tech University—a return to the forum’s roots, when the event was hosted by a local campus. The university setting offers participants a firsthand experience of the campus environment, which can be an eye-opener for attendees such as local and state fire officials who don’t work on a college campus.

Football, research, and beyond

Picture a fall Saturday afternoon in Norman, Oklahoma; Ann Arbor, Michigan; or scores of other communities around the country where large campuses are transformed by the spectacle of football games. On those days, the local college campus is flooded by a sea of alumni, students, and visitors. In Norman, where I work, 85,000 faithful devotees of the Oklahoma Sooners regularly turn out to the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Behind the scenes, I and many other campus safety officials ensure concession stands are operating safely, stairways and exit aisles are clear, and pyrotechnics displays are properly set up. Complex fire alarm systems are monitored for incidents during the game. The last thing I want to do is order the evacuation of a sold-out stadium in the middle of the third quarter—but every one of us knows we could face that decision at any moment.

It’s not just about football. College campuses are typically the site of some of the state’s largest venues, and often some of the biggest shows in all of entertainment. The campus fire marshal is responsible for temporary structure inspections that include large stage setups, tents, canopies, inflatables, and more.

While the job description can make campus fire marshals sound appropriately indispensable, 20 years ago few institutions employed anyone with that title. There were certainly campus fire prevention programs, with dedicated and committed staff, but few had authority beyond what was provided by their administration. Today, more campus fire marshals, mostly at state schools, have legal authority from the state fire marshal either through the law, memorandums of understanding, or other agreements. This includes campuses such as the University of Oklahoma, University of Maryland, Georgia Tech, and the University of California system campuses.

A significant advantage for campuses that serve as their own authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) is the ability to ensure that facilities are designed to meet the needs that serve the school’s mission, especially in the area of research. The research community is comprised of highly touted individuals whose research grants are cherished, bringing the campus large sums of money and prestige branding. Fire safety as it applies to research and development is dynamic, often without prescribed codes and standards for guidance. The campus fire official must make detailed hazard and risk assessments when faced with a proposal for a grant, new research start-ups, or modifications to existing research by principal investigators.

Many people envision a college laboratory as a collection of students performing tabletop experiments with Bunsen burners heating samples in test tubes. Undergraduate labs can resemble this vision, but most campus research departments are increasingly involved with research that presents more exotic hazardous materials, such as pyrophoric liquids and gases, water-reactive solids, and highly toxic gases. Campus fire officials must assess the processes for hazard analysis, standard operating procedures, and research a variety of codes to verify compliance. Use of NFPA 45, Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals, and NFPA 55, Compressed Gases and Cryogenic Liquids Code, are common among campus fire officials to achieve fire safety compliance.

Finding common ground with the research community on safety precautions and understanding of hazards associated with their processes is delicate work. Despite close working collaborations and specialized training with lab workers, fires do occur in campus laboratories. According to findings by Tufts University, 67 percent of the fires are due to electrical causes. Faulty appliances igniting flammable vapors, improper fire safety and grounding measures with electrical equipment fabricated in the lab, and unsupervised processes are also factors. Incorporating monitoring systems for toxic gas and limiting the quantity of materials being used can help prevent lab fires or limit damage if a fire occurs.

A significant challenge for nearly all campus fire safety officials is improving the safety of students residing off campus. The rules that apply on campus, along with the advanced fire protection features and systems (including sprinklers) that help keep on-campus residents safe, are typically much harder to find in off-campus settings. According to National Fire Academy statistics, 94 percent of fatal campus fires occur in off-campus housing, with smoking being the leading cause (29 percent); smoking in campus residence halls is typically prohibited. Alcohol, which is also prohibited in on-campus housing, was a factor in 76 percent of fatalities. Working smoke alarms were present in only 39 percent of off-campus fatal fires.

Most students, when choosing to reside off-campus, are more focused on independence from campus regulations than they are on the fire safety features offered on campus. Campus fire officials approach this challenge in a variety of ways. We educate these students, along with their parents, on basic fire safety features such as working smoke alarms, adequate exits, and safe electrical and heating systems. We establish relationships with landlords to encourage them to make necessary improvements in rental properties. CCFS has worked diligently on this issue by presenting panel discussions at Campus Fire Forums and off-campus fire departments, such as the City of Berkeley FD/EMS, which targets off-campus student housing with outreach by EMS staff, the first responders to most student fire and medical emergencies. The need to reduce off-campus fire deaths and emergencies will be a top priority for years to come.

These are just a few of the challenges faced by the campus fire safety community, including CCFS. Our internal and external partners are integral to the ongoing success of the programs we develop, and to CCFS itself. For more information on campus fire safety and to learn more about CCFS, visit 

Justin Daniels is fire marshal at the University of Oklahoma and president of the Center for Campus Fire Safety. Top photograph: Getty Images