Viewpoint: Couch ban overlooks real fire safety problems



By Josh Buoy and Stephanie Hamel  On  September 6th, 2010

As many remember from last year, disaster struck 928 State Street in April when an off-campus house caught fire, leading to the unfortunate passing of one of its residents — Renden LeMasters, a 22-year-old Eastern Michigan University student. Months after this tragic event, our thoughts and condolences are still with the LeMasters family during what certainly remains a difficult time in their lives. As both a college campus and a part of the Ann Arbor community, we must now reflect upon how to best prevent a similar tragedy from recurring in the near future.

The Ann Arbor City Council has proposed an ordinance change to the Ann Arbor City Code, which prohibits the “storage of furniture not intended or designed for outdoor use on exterior balconies, porches, decks, landings, or other areas exposed to the weather.” The Council's reasoning behind this potential ban derives from the fact that furniture intended for indoor use is oftentimes more flammable than its outdoor counterparts, and thus can perpetuate a fire. When discussing a matter as critical as student safety, however, it is essential that focus solely remains on the well-being of the students and not drift to other debates — like the aesthetics of the city — which have often arisen within the non-student community over this issue. With this in mind, we hope to convey to City Council that the proposed ‘couch ban’ — to which the ordinance is regularly referred — is assuredly not the best action to take to improve fire safety.

As the chair and vice-chair of the Michigan Student Assembly Campus Safety Commission, it is our role to provide the student body with safety information relating to all areas of University life. In light of last spring’s fires, we looked into fire safety regulations for both on- and off-campus housing, and we were startled by the relative void of protocol and procedures within off-campus homes.

With such a large and varied network of landlords and homeowners, safety regulations and suggestions are at times erratically maintained in off-campus housing, as home inspections are currently mandated only once every 30 months by the city. Additionally, there is no active, city-regulated community of landlords and tenants to encourage and ensure that fire safety and personal security are maintained in student homes, thus bringing about increasingly unsafe residences. Therefore, the best way to combat safety-ignorance at the student level is for the city to collaborate with the University to implement a series of standards and provide resources regarding fire safety to all students. By simply banning sofas on front porches, City Council is, in effect, combating against students instead of working with them to promote genuine safety awareness.

Further, while it can't be denied that keeping indoor furniture outside puts residents at risk in the case of a fire, there are many other risks that are equally — if not more — crucial to ensuring the safety of a home. Setting up a grill, leaving out bags of garbage, owning whicker or wood furniture, and disposing of cigarette butts on front porches are hazardous behaviors that can cause or accelerate a fire, yet these practices would not be addressed under the new ordinance. Also, smoke detectors in off-campus homes are irregularly monitored and are sometimes intentionally tampered with, but these life-saving devices are not included in any increased regulations. Perhaps most notably, some off-campus homes do not include emergency or alternative exits, and — as was the case in last April’s fire — the only way out remains the front-porch entrance. Again, at least as of now, nothing looks to be in the works to resolve this matter.

While well intentioned, we see the proposed outdoor couch ban as merely a knee-jerk reaction to a much bigger issue. If this ordinance is passed, it is our fear that the community-at-large will think that great measures have been taken to improve student safety, yet in reality, little will have actually been accomplished. On Sept. 21 at 4:30 p.m. in MSA Chambers, we will be hosting a Campus Neighbors meeting to bring together off-and-on-campus residents in order to improve communication and share pertinent safety information, and we hope that City Council will join us in this effort. Instead of requiring by law that students adhere to one specific faction of safety advice (when so many more exist), City Council should be willing and excited to step up, reach out and create meaningful, widespread change. They should work with the student body, discover its needs and collaborate with the University to make an actual difference — instead of banning couches and calling it a day.

Josh Buoy and Stephanie Hamel are the chair and vice-chair of the MSA Campus Safety Commission.


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