A bill in the Massachusetts State Legislature spearheaded by a Harvard alum would require all students enrolled in the state’s schools and colleges — including Harvard — to complete fire safety training.
The bill — which would mandate a fire safety curriculum and proficiency assessment to gauge student mastery of the material — was introduced in February by State Representative Marjorie C. Decker and State Senator Sal N. DiDomenico in their respective chambers, both Democrats who represent Harvard’s district. As of March 29, the bill has been referred to the committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security for further consideration.
The legislation originated in advocacy by Lauren K. Gibbs ’77, who lost her daughter Margalit “Mara” Gibbs, a student at Reed College in Portland, Ore., in an off-campus fire in February 2017. The fire started in an apartment Mara Gibbs shared with two roommates and after being awakened by the heat and fumes, she was able to dial 911 but was overwhelmed by the smoke and lost consciousness before completing the call. Her roommates managed to escape the fire, but she died two days later from smoke inhalation and her injuries.
Lauren Gibbs said her daughter died in the fire because she had not received enough fire safety training to know that she should have escaped from the apartment and then dialed 911 from a safe location. Since then, Gibbs has campaigned for fire safety education in schools, including colleges and universities, including in her native Massachusetts with the bill currently before the Legislature.
“It’s not that I got involved with the bill,” Gibbs said. “The bill happened because my daughter died. My daughter died because she had no fire safety information.”
Harvard’s Environmental Health and Safety department currently offers fire safety training for residential staff members so they can implement further training and education for students, according to Michael Conner, director of communications for Harvard University Campus Services.
“As part of this program, each year, EH&S trains residential life and building management staff to implement fire safety training for students, faculty, and staff,” Conner wrote. “The training provides basic fire safety and prevention tips as well as insight into what to do in the event of an emergency, pre-emergency planning, evacuation maps, knowledge of emergency evacuation routes, and emergency procedures.”
In addition to the training and accessible fire safety information on Harvard’s Campus Services website, fire drills also promote proper fire safety practices for those living on campus, according to Connor.
Aside from these measures, however, Harvard does not currently require fire safety training or education for students. If the bill is passed, Harvard would have to design a mandatory fire safety curriculum and a proficiency examination to comply with the new provisions.
Gibbs said she hopes the bill will be strengthened to require fire safety training annually, to ensure that all students, including those who have transferred from other states and countries, are proficient in the appropriate fire safety procedures.
Gibbs added she remains committed to pursuing fire safety education legislation not only in Massachusetts, but throughout the United States.
“I want to hit all 50 states,” she said.
Cambridge Fire Department Acting Chief Gerard E. “Gerry” Mahoney, who has worked in firefighting for nearly four decades, said he supports the proposed legislation and the safety measures it would require.
“I wholeheartedly endorse it, I think it’s a great idea,” Mahoney said. “I’ve been in this business for 38 years. We’ve had our share of incidents at the campuses of all three universities in the city — Harvard, MIT, and Lesley — some unfortunately with some tragic consequences.”
Mahoney said he envisions the fire safety curriculum would be administered in the form of online training videos, with a quiz afterward to test students’ retention of the information. He also cautioned against complacency resulting from decreased rates of fires and fire-related accidents.
“We don’t have the amount of fires we used to have, thankfully, and unfortunately, that has built in a lot of complacency into peoples’ lives,” he said. “Famous last words are always ‘What could happen?’ ‘What could go wrong?’”
—Staff writer Ashley R. Masci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.