Student apartments can be dangerous

Summer has just begun, but for new high school graduates and students completing another year of college, heading to a campus beckons later in the season.

Ted Panagiotopoulos of Wilton, a fire code enforcement official for more than 30 years, wants students and parents to be aware of the dangers of living off-campus.

“Roughly 162 kids have been killed in college fires since 2000 — mostly off-campus,” he said. “A lot of these kids want to get a cheaper apartment. Single- and two-family homes don’t come under the stringent code requirements that multi-family homes do. Then you have illegal housing — places that are illegally converted.

“We’re just trying to get the message out. There’s a task force that is being created with the campus fire organization to educate students and parents. That’s basically what I’m doing.”

Mr. Panagiotopoulos started his own company, Fire and Life Safety Concepts, based in Wilton. According to its website, the company was created “with the goal, purpose and ambition to provide clients with performance-based options and solutions that can assist them in achieving and maintaining code-compliant properties.”

He recently hosted a lecture in Stamford, where he has been a fireman since 1976, beginning in the Glenbrook Fire Department. He is currently the deputy fire marshal for Stamford.

“I point the parents and the students into doing the research first,” he said. “If you’re exploring outside the confines of the college campus, make sure you’re checking with zoning officials, health department and the fire marshal. A lot of times you may have a leasing agent involved and they may or may not be telling you the absolute truth. They’re trying to lease a house, and the place may have been illegally divided.

“Smoke detection and carbon monoxide detection are a must. But also don’t get yourself in a situation where you’re in an attic apartment with one stair down, or a basement unit that may not have proper egress windows for you to escape out of your room.

“There are a whole bunch of things to look out for.”

Mr. Panagiotopoulos stresses doing the proper research. That means checking to see if the housing has been inspected and if the property is licensed to be a rooming house or a multi-family apartment house. While the small apartment might seem great for friends to live in college, there still needs to be the concern about the legality of the space, and the inherent danger that it may present.

“They’re basically moving people into closets,” Mr. Panagiotopoulos said with a laugh. “Two or three guys want to bunk out together, but they don’t realize that if something catches fire underneath and they’re cut off, there’s no way they’re going to get down.

“I’m passionate about this,” he said. “I’m saying to myself, these kids are going off to college and a lot of them are not seeing graduation because of somebody’s stupidity.”

What starts a fire hasn’t changed, he said. Improperly discarded cigarettes, cooking hazards, candles, and more are all capable of starting a fire, but Mr. Panagiotopoulos stresses that students and parents need to know that having a smoke alarm isn’t enough.

“It’s compartmentation of the structure,” he said. “It’s proper exiting. A lot of people don’t think about it. They have to think about if there’s a fire in an attic, is there a second way out, or are they trapped in the flames.”

He added that this is part of a nationwide effort, and a task force is being created by Campus Fire Safety, whose motto, according to its website, is “Every Student Goes Home.”

“I went to Columbus, Ohio, in March and spoke at a Campus Fire Safety risk management event, addressing inspection officials from universities, letting them know how to inspect these dwellings properly,” he said.

Mr. Panagiotopoulos is experienced with illegal housing, serving on a task force in Stamford that finds and addresses spaces that aren’t up to code.

He said that his biggest concern is education, but not just for the students.

“Parents often trust their kids to say ‘I’ve found a place,’” he said. “But they might not really know what’s going on.”

While Fire and Life Safety Concepts is indeed a business that focuses on code consultation, inspection investigation and training, Mr. Panagiotopoulos isn’t profiting from the lectures on off-campus fire safety.

“Right now, I’m not charging,” he said. “I’m doing it as a community thing. I think it needs to be out there. Whether you’re doing it on the municipal end or the private end, we’re still doing the same thing.”

He does say that perhaps a cost could come into play if a family wants a specific dwelling to be inspected. Travel expenses may be involved, but that’s not something he is thinking about right now.

“This is about the community,” he said. “It might get my name out there in the local community and it probably does help my business but I’m not looking to make a big profit out of this.”

Indeed a North Carolina TV station did a Google search and called him for a comment after an 11-year-old boy died in a hotel in Boone, N.C.

“Low and behold, that night I was on NBC,” he said.

He said he’ll consider doing this more full time once he retires from the fire department.

Mr. Panagiotopoulos moved to Wilton in 2002, “primarily because I wanted to get my kids into the school system here.” His has two sons, 23 and 22, one who is in college, and the other is in the working world.

Turning away from his personal life, he returns to talking about fire safety, which is never far from his mind.

“Always be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “Look for that second exit.”