At 4:30 a.m. on a Thursday in October 2005, Scott Perrin’s phone rang. He woke up.
“The house is on fire – get out!” said a voice on the other end of the line.
Thanks to the phone call, Perrin, then a senior in the College of Engineering, escaped from his house at 730 Arbor St. before flames destroyed it.
“It was a freak incident that I left my phone on that night,” Perrin said.
There’s no telling what would have happened if he had turned his phone off. Perrin said he couldn’t remember whether the smoke detectors in his house ever went off.
Shortly after Perrin emerged from his basement bedroom, another one of his six housemates – the last to escape the blaze – dove headfirst through the window of his second-story bedroom. Perrin said fire inspectors thought his housemate opened his bedroom door and found the hallway on fire before jumping through the window.
“I remember standing outside, watching my house burn down, all my belongings going up in flames, and thinking, ‘Is this real?’ ” Perrin said.
Perrin’s experience is hardly uncommon, though.
According to Campus Firewatch, a monthly newsletter published by former Center for Campus Fire Safety director Ed Comeau, a total of 108 fire-related fatalities have occurred on or near college campuses since January 2000. Eighty-one percent of those deaths occurred in off-campus housing, he said.
Nineteen students have died in fires near colleges since August, making this academic year the most deadly since Comeau began compiling data in January 2000.
The most recent death occurred March 16 in an off-campus apartment at Boston University. Less than three weeks earlier, the college had lost two more students in a similar apartment fire.
The housemate was hospitalized for several days with second-degree burns, a lacerated tricep and a severed nerve in his arm. One of his knuckles was later removed because it was damaged in the fall from the window.
Perrin said the worst part of the fire was watching his friend recover.
“Maybe if we had been more fire-conscious, we could’ve prevented that,” he said.
Although the seven tenants of the house all made it out alive that night, the situation could have been much different if the stairs leading to the house’s top floor caught fire before the house’s occupants escaped, Perrin said.
The house had no fire escapes.
When Perrin and his housemates moved in a month and a half earlier, they weren’t thinking about fire safety, he said.
“It’s something that we should’ve considered when we first moved in, but no one really thinks about that,” he said. “Honestly, we didn’t think about it much at all.”
Comeau said four common threads link many off-campus fires: a lack of sprinkler systems, missing or disabled smoke detectors, improperly disposed cigarettes and drunkenness.
Comeau said building problems like electrical fires rarely cause off-campus housing fatalities.
Ann Arbor fire inspectors never determined the specific cause of the fire at 730 Arbor St., which destroyed the entire three-story house and all its contents. Perrin said fire inspectors think the blaze started on a couch on the front porch.
In June 2004, a house at 924 Oakland Ave. caught fire in a similar manner, injuring several student athletes who spent the summer term on campus.
Perrin said the occupants with bedrooms above the porch had left their windows open and smelled smoke. After realizing the porch was on fire, the students woke up everyone in the house except one occupant who later jumped out of a window. The student’s room was locked with a deadbolt.
Comeau said colleges should create fire safety education programs to prevent fire fatalities. He said a list of dos and don’ts on a website or a presentation during freshman orientation isn’t enough to ensure that students are prepared for fires.
“It’s not something you can do once. It’s something that you do throughout the year in small increments,” he said. “The idea is to create messages that stick.”
Comeau said fire safety education should start early so students will know what safety measures to look for when choosing off-campus housing.
“It’s so important that the training starts in the residence halls so that when students move off-campus, that training stays with them, and it also stays with them after they graduate,” he said.
Perrin said his experience dramatically affected the way he looked for housing after he graduated and left Ann Arbor.
“One of the very first things I did was walk in and make sure the fire alarms and smoke detectors worked,” he said of his new apartment in Temecula, Calif.
He said he also made sure the apartment had multiple escape routes and bought a renter’s insurance policy. When the fire occurred, all seven occupants of 730 Arbor St. were covered by their parents’ homeowners insurance. Not all students are covered by their parents’ insurance policy, though.
Perrin had advice for students living in or thinking about moving to off-campus housing. “Be aware of fire safety when you first get a place, be conscious and have a plan in case it does happen,” he said. “It’s really important to have a plan. Having a plan where everybody meets in one place is extremely key.”
Perrin said his lessons reached his immediate circle of friends.
“After that happened to us, all of our friends instantly became more fire-conscious,” Perrin said. “It’s just a shame that we had to learn that from personal experience.”