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Student fires​

Student behaviour makes halls a hotbed for fire

  • Research shows students need to swot up on fire safety
  • One in two regularly ‘drink and fry’ causing hundreds of fires each year

The vast majority (81%) of university students regularly undertake activities that risk fire in their halls or accommodation warned public sector insurer, Zurich Municipal today. Research conducted using a student panel through the National Union of Students (NUS) Research Services revealed that two thirds of students (66%) have cooked after midnight and one in two (50%) have done so under the influence of alcohol, but a significant number (33%) aren't aware of the fire safety procedures in their halls or rented accommodation (i).

The warning comes as thousands of university students make their way to Freshers' Week this month and with 75% of students surveyed believing themselves to be "pretty sensible, but likely to take the odd risk now and then", fire safety is unlikely to be a top priority for the new term. But figures released by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) show how prevalent fires are in student halls of residence. There were 514 fires recorded across student accommodation in Great Britain last year alone(ii) with the misuse of cooking appliances accounting for over half (58%) of all incidents. Other big causes were deep fat fryer and chip pan fires (9%) and faulty appliances and leads (7%).

While reassuringly few university students now regularly smoke in their rooms (6%), they risk fire in a variety of other ways with 43% admitting they dry clothes over a heater or radiator, 24% often burning candles or incense and 43% doing all of this while also storing alcohol in their student room. Female undergraduates actually pose the greatest fire risk– as well as being more likely to dry their clothes inappropriately or burn candles, 73% use hair straighteners or other electrical beauty products, 21% favour fairy lights and 17% have an electrical heater in their room.

Such is the appeal of late night food foraging, more than one in ten university students has a toaster (11%) or cooks (12%) in their actual bedroom. Toast is the favourite midnight snack – 36% of students admit to regularly cooking this in the early hours followed by pizza (15%) and pasta (13%). One of the most popular food items to cook after a few drinks is chips (12%) and worryingly DCLG figures show there have been 47 serious chip pan fires in student halls of residence over the last year. And taking to the stove in the early hours or while under the influence is not a one-off – almost half (47%) of students cook after midnight and almost one third (32%) do so under the influence of alcohol at least once a term.

Paul Tombs, Head of Education at Zurich Municipal, said:

"Reading up on fire safety procedures is not going to be top of the 'to do' list for most students at the start of this academic term, but it is homework worth doing. Particularly during Freshers' Week when people are out drinking more than they usually would, it's important to just use a bit of common sense before you start tucking in to some late night snacks. Cooking whilst under the influence of alcohol always poses a danger and many fires start after falling asleep and forgetting about what's being cooked.

"But the kitchen is not the only fire hotspot – with cash-strapped students often opting to use cheap or second hand electrical goods, dry their clothes in their rooms or make them more homely with candles and delicate lighting, their own bedrooms can be a real hotbed for fire. We advise that all of this year's Freshers take the time to locate the fire exits before they locate the bar, swot up on their fire procedures and think after they drink."

Peter Holland, Chief Fire & Rescue Adviser, Department for Communities and Local Government:

"Fire safety is basic but important knowledge for all students, whether they are just beginning their time at university or returning for their next year. As the figures show, the prevalence of fires in student halls of residence is still high, but worryingly this is coupled with a lack of basic awareness of fire procedures and safety measures that can keep students safe.

"Cooking while tired or under the influence of alcohol is still one of the greatest causes of fires in student halls but can be easily avoided with a little bit of common sense and planning. Knowing the risks and following simple advice and tips such as these is one of the best defences against fire and we'd encourage all students to follow them during Freshers' Week and beyond."

To help promote fire safety, Zurich Municipal has produced the following STUDENT fire safety tips:

Snack smart: consider a takeaway, cold snack or pre-cook your food if you are planning a big night out. Drink can make you forgetful and clumsy, slow reaction times when a fire does break out and can affect your decision making. Remember it's not just your life you're putting at risk, it's everyone living in the same building and nearby.

Turn off: sounds basic but make sure cooking appliances and other electrical items – particularly high heat products like hair straighteners and mobile phone chargers – are turned off when not in use. Cooking appliances can heat up very quickly so be wary of things that are nearby. Food packaging should be put in the bin as soon as possible to avoid any unnecessary items getting burnt or becoming a fire hazard.

Unclog your sockets: overloading electrical sockets can be a common source for fires. The general rule and advice from the Electrical Safety Council is to never plug into an extension lead or socket appliances that together use more than 13 amps or 3000 watts of energy.

Dry safely: Covering lamps or heaters with clothes or fabrics is a major fire risk. Never be tempted to dry anything close to a fire – use the tumble dryers available in halls or locally, line dry or ensure you use a clothes horse stored well away from any heat source.

Escape route: If a fire does break out and the alarm has not been activated - activate it. You will need to exit the building as quickly and safely as possible. In order to do this you need to be aware of where the fire exits are. Ensure you plan and are familiar with the route and make sure the route is clear of any obstructions as often as possible.

No naked flames: Remember to put out cigarettes properly and never smoke when tired – especially in bed – or near flammable objects. Careless disposal of cigarettes is a real danger and is one of the biggest killers in house fires. You should never leave a lit cigarette unattended as they can easily over balance and fall as they burn down. Anything with an open flame is a fire hazard. Take care using candles and avoid using them in small enclosed spaces. If you do use them, make sure they are in proper holders so they don't fall over.

Test your smoke detector: Most importantly you should test your smoke detector regularly so that if a fire does break out you are alerted. It's advisable to test it once a week.


Statistical notes

i. Student behaviour to fire safety and risk taking: online omnibus survey of 1,187 representative university undergraduate students conducted for Zurich Municipal through the NUS student research panel in July 2013
ii. DCLG figures: FOI request in April 2013 for total number of fires in student halls of residence 2011/12 and source of ignition and cause of fire data.
iii. Electrical Safety Council - Socket Overload Calculator

For further information contact: Stephen Sobey, Senior Media Relations Manager, Zurich UK: 020 7648 3065

Zurich Municipal, part of Zurich's UK General Insurance division, is a leading provider of risk and insurance solutions to Britain's public services. We are dedicated to providing expert advice and support to public service providers including local authorities, social housing providers, educational institutions and charities and voluntary organisations.