Fire! How can you prevent it?

In student houses fires occur with some regularity. Accidents will happen. For example, did you know it’s better not to put cigarettes in a flower pot?

As the daughter of a firefighter, I always thought I had it pretty well sussed in terms of fire safety. But when the fire brigade was called to our house last week because of a peculiar smell of burnt plastic, their first comment was: ‘No smoke alarm in the kitchen’.

‘I’m not so happy that you’re going to live here… No escape routes,’ my father said when he first walked into the second house I lived in. ‘I’ve thought about that,’ I said, ‘I can smash the window here and then escape to the balcony.’ The balcony was one floor down, in theory I was right, but whether it would work in practice… My father was happy when I moved within a year.

Each year there are about seven thousand house fires in the Netherlands

In student houses in Groningen there are incidents like these too. Just last October, three female students narrowly escaped a fire and in February there was a major fire in a student house in the Papengang. The fire brigade rushed to the scene with heavy-duty equipment. Fifteen student rooms were evacuated. Eight students needed the fire brigade to get out of the house.

In the Netherlands, there are about seven thousand house fires each year (fires in gardens and containers also count). Last year, there were 7,833 reports of house fires. In 7,074 cases, the fire brigade was involved. Sometimes it is clear upon arrival that the fire has already been contained, and sometimes it is a false alarm, or even a false report.

How often a fire starts in student accommodation is unclear. The spokesperson for the Groningen Safety Region explains that this is sometimes easy to establish, when the premises belong to a room-letting agency, for example. But when students rent from a private landlord, it is more difficult. The fire in the Papengang involved a house in which both students and working people lived.

Fires in student houses are often related to expecting too much from a limited space

‘A fire can start easily’, says the Safety Region spokesperson. ‘It may be caused by a burning cigarette or by connecting extension cords, by short circuits and electrical appliances.’ It is better to charge a phone and laptop on a hard surface than on the sofa or in bed, where they can catch fire due to the heat that is released. Fires in student houses are ‘often related to expecting too much from a limited space’, says the spokesperson.

The landlord is responsible for fire safety in a property. Since July 2022, it is compulsory to have at least one smoke detector per floor in each property. In houses with more than five student rooms, there must be one fire extinguisher per floor. You can ask your landlord or housing association to install the required smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

What turned out to be the cause of the burnt-plastic odour?

The Safety Region has set up a website ( Unfortunately that site is in Dutch. However, especially for international students they also provide a page with tips on preventing fires. Sometimes obvious ones (don’t dry your laundry too close to the stove!), sometimes odd ones (don’t extinguish a cigarette on a plant!).

If your house is on fire, there are many things you can do to prevent it from getting worse. Some are very easy: call the Dutch emergency number 112, warn housemates and close all windows and doors.

The burnt-plastic odour we detected in our house was caused by a defect in the ventilation duct of the cooker hood. The fire service removed it and the landlord has since installed a new one. He also installed a heat detector in the kitchen, an alarm that goes off when the temperature is too high or rising rapidly.