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Cooperative Tone, Collaborative Solutions Mark Fire-Safety Summit

Timothy J. Mallery, assistant director of residence life%2Fcoordinator of housing operations, shares on-campus safety tips with off-campus landlords.A cross-section of landlords, city officials, student leaders and Pennsylvania College of Technology staff recently held the first in a proposed series of annual summits, brainstorming an issue of mutual importance: how to reduce the likelihood of off-campus apartment fires caused by carelessness or criminality.

The Feb. 20 meeting was chaired by J. Elliott Strickland, special assistant to the vice president for student affairs, who envisions such sessions every spring to address “issues that are complex enough that no one group can solve them on its own.”

Fire safety was chosen as the opening topic, he explained, because 2,500 to 3,000 students live off campus in a five-block radius of the college, and the potential for danger is ever-present. The following days’ headlines affirmed that, as arson struck several off-campus dwellings. Though no one was injured, 14 students were displaced in one of the fires.

Landlords and tenants spent much of the summit discussing the importance of smoke detectors and the penalties for disabling them, and it was evident that college students an overwhelming majority of them law-abiding and responsible will play a major role in defusing the risky behavior of a relative few.

“We need to lead by example,” said Horace Fletcher, one of three Student Government Association leaders on the panel. “This student body is so tight-knit that, if a few knowledgeable students take the lead, it will have an effect on everybody else.” He and his colleagues, Amanda G. LeClair and Jared A. Hoover, readily endorsed taking on that peer-education responsibility.

SGA already is undertaking a project to disseminate fire-safety and other life-saving tips on door hangers throughout off-campus apartments, Hoover told the group. Landlords, who offered to help distribute that information, applauded the students’ initiative.

“It has to come from you,” Richard Mirabito, of Mirabito Properties, told them. “When they hear it from us, we’re just old adults who worry about things.”

Rental-property owners were reassured by Tom Swigart, an inspector with the Williamsport Bureau of Fire, who said two apartment-dwellers recently were fined $1,000 each by a Lycoming County judge for tampering with smoke detectors.

“We’re there for landlords as much as for students,” he said. “Call me. It’s no more ‘Mr. Nice Guy.’ If they take their smoke detectors down, they’re going to be cited.”

Mirabito agreed, saying, “We don’t want to be baby sitters, but students need to know: Disabling a smoke detector is putting someone’s life at risk; that’s our line in the sand.”

City Fire Marshal C. Dean Heinbach noted a revised rental-inspection ordinance is again before Williamsport City Council, setting forth minimum standards for a landlord to obtain a housing license. The college’s criteria on its “preferred” roster of renters which is shared with students are stricter than those proposed by the city, mandating annual property inspections as opposed to the quadrennial inspections in the rewritten ordinance. SGA is on record in favor of its passage. Students plan to attend a City Council meeting in support of the ordinance.

In another example of college-community cooperation, apartment owners at the summit were apprised of the guidelines laid out for students who reside in on-campus housing.

Timothy J. Mallery, assistant director of residence life/coordinator of housing operations, urged apartment owners to give their tenants clear expectations of behavior, providing students with a list of specifically prohibited items (and the fines for their possession), posting fire-safety precautions in every apartment, running regular fire drills, regularly testing fire extinguishers and equipping rooms with fire-resistant mattresses.

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