According to Dan Jones, fire chief in Chapel Hill, N.C., there are as many as 1,800 fires every year. And, he says, "that's the 1,800 we know about. I believe it's probably significantly more, but they go unreported."
Every call to the nearby University of North Carolina is treated as an emergency despite the fact that sometimes there is no fire at all.
Just over a year ago, on January 19, a fire alarm went off in a freshman dorm at 4:30 a.m. at Seton Hall University.
Ken Simons, an 18-year-old freshman at the time, was in his room on the third floor. "You know we were just thinking that it was another routine prank fire drill, " he says.
Still believing it was a false alarm, Simons opened the door of his dorm room. "It was a lot of smoke. It was, you know that thick black smoke. And it just came into the room and filled up the whole room," he recalls. "And you know, I closed the door back and I said to my roommate, 'this is the real thing.'"
The fire was raging in a student lounge just four doors away from Simons' room.
He managed to get out of the burning building, but not before he was critically injured. "On my hands, I had third degree burns. And on my face, multiple first, second and third degree burns," he says.
Simons and 57 other students were hospitalized, but they were the lucky ones. Three students, Aaron Karol, Frank Cattabilota, and John Giunta -all freshman at the university - died in the fire.
Investigators also believe the three students would not have died in the fire if their dorm had been equipped with a sprinkler system. "They are 99.9 percent effective, there has never been a recorded multiple loss of life in a sprinklered building in America," says Fire Chief Dan Jones.
Jones has been fighting to get sprinklers in student housing everywhere, but it is an uphill battle.
There are no national figures, but a 48 Hours survey of nearly all the colleges and universities in the state of North Carolina found that less than a third of the dorms are equipped with sprinklers.
Even after a tragedy it is difficult to get colleges and universities to act.
After spending two weeks in a coma and another seven months in rehabilitation, Ken Simons is back in school. He says despite the scars, he still has a lot to be thankful for: "As far as my face is concerned, everything is just coming back. You know, I look at my hands and everyday you know I look at it and say I'm really scarred. But it's not that bad. You know, I still have my hands. It could have been a lot worse.
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