Fire Safety & Student Housing – Questions Students Should Ask Landlords

Monday, May 2, 2016

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In elementary school, students are regularly taught about fire safety and routinely practice fire drills. These exercises extend into secondary school, where students become acclimatized to standard fire safety routines. In many cases, however, it isn’t until college or university where students are presented with a scenario in which they must apply their fire safety knowledge firsthand. For most, it will be finding a safe student rental accommodation, to minimize potential risks significantly.

Previously we discussed how students are often inexperienced renters, having little-to-no independent living or renting background. This lack of experience often means that students don’t necessarily know what to look for when it comes to student accommodations. Generally speaking, they are most concerned about the rental rate, amenities and roommates. Unfortunately, important matters like fire safety are often relegated to the back of a student’s mind.

Most student tenants will remember the fire safety basics, such as accommodations needing operational smoke detectors and an alternate exit; however, it’s unlikely their knowledge extends far beyond this.


Before signing a lease, students are encouraged to ask their potential landlords some questions about fire and tenant safety. Several suggested questions are provided below.


1. Are smoke detectors installed outside all sleeping areas? Can I test them now?

It’s not enough just to ask if they are installed; students should ask to actually test smoke detectors. Landlords should regularly be checking their smoke detectors, especially before they search for new tenants. If a student finds that there are smoke detectors that don’t work, sometimes the solution is just new batteries. But other times, the smoke detectors will need to be replaced. This can be a red flag.


2. Does every single bedroom have a safe fire or emergency exit?

In some cases, having only one alternate exit is not enough (depending on the layout of the unit and location of bedrooms). It’s imperative that every tenant has a means for safe escape in the event of a fire or emergency. This is especially important for basement units. Windows in a basement bedroom must be large enough for a tenant to crawl through, in case the emergency exit door is not reachable in the event of a fire. There are specific measurements that must be adhered to, in order for the basement unit to be a legal rental accommodation (this varies from region to region).


In addition, it’s important to actually test alternate exits such as windows and doors. For example, when a student is considering a basement unit, it’s recommended to measure and open all of the windows to ensure they aren’t sealed, painted shut or stubborn to open.


3. Is there a carbon monoxide alarm(s) installed? Can I test it now?


This question may not apply to all types of buildings, as some older buildings may not be required to have carbon monoxide alarms installed. Nonetheless, it’s still a question that should be answered by a landlord; especially in newer buildings where it may be a legal requirement (this varies from region to region). Whether stipulated or not by a city’s regulations, it’s recommended to plug in a carbon monoxide alarm.


4. Are there GFC (ground fault circuit-interrupter) outlets installed in the bathroom(s) and kitchen?

For electrical safety, all outlets within close proximity to toilets, sinks and other running water faucets should have GFC style outlets (this may be a legal requirement in some regions).

In addition, it’s recommended to make sure there are enough outlets in the accommodation to avoid the use of multiple extension cords.  Extension cords should not be used as permanent wiring.


5. Is there a fire extinguisher within the rental unit? If so, what type?  Also, has it been inspected or tested recently?


In most cases, landlords equip their rental units with small fire extinguishers, especially within kitchen areas (this may be a legal requirement in some regions). There are three types of extinguishers: Class A, Class B and Class C. It’s important that the correct class be used for specific type of fires.

  • Class A is for ordinary fires
  • Class B is for flammable liquids
  • Class C is for electrical fires


It’s also important that fire extinguishers are routinely inspected and tested to ensure functionality (inspection dates are usually documented on each extinguisher).


6. Has there ever been a fire in this residence? If so, what was the cause and outcome?


Knowing the history of a building or apartment is important. If there has been a fire at the residence previously, it’s crucial to ensure that the property has been adequately repaired, inspected and approved by authorities that it meets safety guidelines.

7. Is this rental currently registered and certified (if required by the city)?

In some cases, municipalities have local by-laws in place that govern matters related to rental housing. This may involve having the fire department or a city inspector verify that the rental meets safety standards. Not all municipalities have licensing programs in effect, so this question may not be applicable in some regions.


Students, parents and landlords are advised to do research and/or contact their city to confirm whether certification is a requirement or not. As well, they are encouraged to check with their local fire department regarding fire safety regulations and laws. Most of this information will be available online.

For additional tips for finding fire-safe student accommodations, review the National Fire Protection Association and Toronto Fire Services pages. Tufts University has also put together a helpful fire safety guide for off-campus housing selection.


In addition, we have other helpful tips posted on under ‘Help’ and Safety Tips for Students. Also check out's Fire Safety Videos.

SEE ALSO: What To Do if You Have Legal Issues With Your Student Housing Landlord

The Team