‘I could smell the smoke’: Leah on why you should always report a fire risk

22 Oct 2021
By Leah W., Student at De Montfort University

Whether you’ve just moved into your first uni home, or you’ve been there a couple of years, there’s one thing every student gets tired hearing about in the first few weeks: fire safety.

I remember standing outside the front of my university accommodation clad in my pajamas, dressing gown and messy bun at eight in the morning on my one day off in the week wanting to strangle whoever set the fire drill in motion.

But for all the frustration, needless early mornings, and residual headaches the fire alarm gave me, I understood that it was a necessary evil. I knew it might prove useful someday, and I was right.

A couple months into university, I’d gotten to know my flatmates, including their common habit of smoking. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with people who smoke, and I have dabbled in social smoking. It was where and when they smoked that worried me.

Like most student accommodation today, there was a strict no smoking policy in the flat bedrooms and kitchen and we were only allowed to smoke in the outside communal area. So, when I walked into the smell of smoke, I ran to the kitchen expecting to find a smouldering pan, only to find my flatmates smoking.

They’d devised a strategy of opening the kitchen window all the way out and blowing smoke out the window, covering the smoke alarm in the kitchen with a plastic bag and tape. This continued for weeks, both during the day and at night when they had been drinking or had come in from a night out.

It caused me stress beyond belief. On the one hand, they were breaking the rules and what they were doing was dangerous, but nothing had happened yet, and they were my flatmates. I didn’t want to cause drama and have tension between us over a plastic bag and tape.

As time went on and nothing bad happened, I started to relax a little, believing that I had been worrying too much. It wasn’t long after that I was proven wrong.

While getting ready to go out one evening, the fire alarm started to go off in our building. As I threw on some shoes and ran outside, I could smell the smoke coming from above our flat, and I bolted down the stairs without a second thought.

The smoke was so thick that the fire brigade had to use those big ventilation fans to clear the building after they had dealt with the fire itself. No one was hurt, thankfully, but the kitchen of this other flat had significant damage.

I later heard that a resident of that flat had been using a chip pan, which was prohibited in this accommodation, and had been cooking with it. They left it unattended, and the oil got too hot and started to burn, eventually catching fire.

As I walked to meet my friends for my evening out, I couldn’t help but think about what had happened. What if my flatmates ever forgot to uncover the smoke alarm and something like that happened in our flat? What if they left a burning cigarette on the counter and it set something on fire?

I made the decision there and then to report them anonymously to the accommodation staff, which you could do through the company’s app. My only hope was that it wouldn’t end in an argument if they found out that I had reported them.

I never saw the conversation between the staff and my flatmates, but I got an email confirming that they had investigated and that the issue had been addressed. Despite them being irritated that they’d been ‘caught’, I felt better knowing that they wouldn’t risk trying something like that again.

If there’s one thing I urge you to take from my story it’s this: don’t wait to report unsafe behaviour in your flat. It took me witnessing a real fire to finally report what I knew was happening, but you may not get that luxury before something terrible happens.

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I'm a second-year creative writing student at De Montfort University who loves writing poetry and other things for my blogs.