Couches on porches are a significant fire risk. A number of fatal fires have been caused when a smoldering cigarette catches the couch on fire in the middle of the night. Do you really need a couch? If you do, before you go to bed, make sure there are no smoldering cigarettes in the cushions or nearby.

The Story

Peter Talen, 23

On November 18, 2007, Peter Talen died in an off-campus fire in Madison, Wisconsin, while visiting his brother, Andy, who was attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This is his story, as told by his mother, Patty Talen.

Peter had been going to the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse, studying theater. He loved theater since he was very young and had a natural ability. He took a year off and went out to Colorado to do some acting, but came back in October 2007 and was going to return to school in the spring. He hadn’t seen Andy since he had left for Colorado so he made a special trip to Madison to visit him. When Peter went to Madison he usually stayed with another friend but this time he stayed over at Andy’s house so he could spend more time with him and was sleeping on the couch in the living room.

The fire started on the front porch, in a couch from a discarded cigarette. The fire was spotted when one of Andy’s roommates woke up (he doesn’t know why) and saw the fire in the front living room. He tried to put it out, but couldn’t, and ran to the back of the house and woke up two other people that were asleep. They all became disoriented and went in different directions, trying to get out. Andy wound up having to run through the fire in the front living room and out the front door. He ran around to the back of the house and pulled one of his roommates out of a window.

There had been smoke alarms in the house, but they did not fit the brackets on the ceiling and were, instead, sitting on top of the refrigerator.

This was a terrible tragedy for everyone, the family, the school and the community. However, out of it came some good. As a result of this fire, Madison passed a progressive ordinance requiring that all rental properties have working smoke alarms. This will make a difference in someone’s life, there is no doubt.

The fire started in a couch on the porch and spread into the house. Peter Talen was sleeping on a couch in the living room and was killed by the heat and smoke.

To know…

  • You need to know this information for after when you are visiting friends who live off-campus and for when you move out of the residence halls.
  • This is only some of what you need to know. There is more information online at the links below.
  • Over four out of five of the campus-related fire fatalities and injuries happen off-campus. Think about this when you are visiting someone’s house.
  • What you learn here can save lives…yours, your friends, your roommates
  • Escape Planning
    • Always know two ways out, wherever you are.
    • The way you came in might be blocked when you try to get out.
    • Your second way out might be something like a window.
  • Automatic Fire Sprinklers
    • Fire sprinklers save lives, no two ways about it.
    • They can put out the fire within seconds, long before any fire department can get there.
    • Despite what you see in the movies, only one or two sprinklers will go off and they will put out the fire.
  • Smoke alarms
    • Smoke alarms in the residence halls, you don’t need to worry about testing them. Facilities will do that.
    • Do NOT cover them with anything. It puts you and everyone around you in danger if they can’t do their job.
    • When you move off-campus, make sure you have working smoke alarms in your home. They can save your life.

This is all that remains of the couch on the front porch where the fire started.

Watch these videos to learn more about smoke alarms and escape planning.

Action steps

  • Smoke alarms – install them, test them, maintain them. They can’t save your life if they can’t do their job. If you don’t have them, for the price of a pizza you can buy a smoke alarm.
  • Escape Planning – Know two ways out, no matter where you are. Your second way out may be a window. Be ready, know what to do before the emergency.


There is a lot more that you can know to be fire safe. For more information, visit these links.