Officials think they know the cause of a recent rash of dormitory fire alarms: cooking problems.
There have been 65 fire activations on campus since September 1, and 45 of those have been in the resident halls, according to Robert Zavada, Director of Campus Safety and Security.
Zavada said one fire alarm activation is scheduled in each resident hall every semester. The remaining alarms are caused by activity in the buildings.
“Most of the time it has to do with something that we can identify, such as a student that was involved with cooking something,” said Zavada.
Zavada said cooking issues seem to be the primary reason for alarm activation.
Zavada said the campus fire system is technologically advanced. The system, which is installed in all buildings, is connected by fiber optics.
“It is really advanced technology that reports into the fire panel electronically onto a computer screen,” said Zavada.
He said alarms can be sparked by a variety of things, from burned food in a microwave to other more common day-to-day things, such as steam from a shower.
Zavada said seemingly harmless things have set off alarms. He said curling irons , space heaters and even hairspray, if sprayed closely to the detector, can be culprits.
He said if students are spraying something into the air “and somehow the mist from that gets transferred into the smoke detector” an alarm may go off even if there is no smoke.
He said students have also set off alarms by “ignit[ing] some substances,” an activity, which he added, can lead to repercussions for the student.
“[The student] would go through the conduct office and they would be meeting with a conduct officer,” said Brandon Winslow, Resident Director for MacDowell Hall and the townhouses. The conduct officer who would talk to the student(s) is usually the resident director of the building, he said.
Zavada also reported alarms caused by students who have attempted to remove smoke detectors from walls.
“These are things that are just unlawful to do,” said Zavada. “You’re not supposed to be tampering with stuff.”
He said tampering is normally discovered by alarm system inspectors or Residence Life staffers on breaks.
Pulling a fire alarm is against the law and students will be punished if they do so, he said.
Ewelina Taran, Director of Alumnae and McGowan halls, said she and her staff and have been developing strategies to help students with their cooking issues and reduce the number of alarm activations. She has held programs to teach students how to cook safely, but not many students have attended the events.
Taran believes it is because students believe they don’t need the information.
According to Zavada and Taran, students and even staff need to make an effort to learn about campus fire procedures.
“It would be a good improvement if faculty members were to review [the procedure] with their students,” Zavada said. “Say, ‘in case of an evacuation this is what we are going to do.’”
Taran, and Winslow agree that students need more education about fire drills and what they are required to do when one happens. They advise that everyone, including faculty and staff, read signs, which are posted in every building, so they know what to do in the event of a real fire emergency.
“The most dangerous thing to do during an evacuation is to lock your door and hide in your office,” Zavada said.
Taran and Winslow are concerned about students who stay in buildings during fire activations.
“That is a violation,” Winslow said. He also wants students to know when an alarm goes off, they must evacuate or face trouble with resident directors.
Zavada and Taran said one of the best things to do in the event of an alarm is to use an emergency exit door.
“A lot of people are hesitant to do that, but that’s part of evacuation and we would never fault a student for doing that,” explained Zavada.
“You don’t necessarily think ‘Oh, I can exit this way and it will be quicker,’” said Taran. “Students can utilize those exits. That will give them faster access to get out.”
Taran and Winslow also advise students to keep microwave doors closed if something burns. That will help control the amount of smoke released into the room. They also say keeping burners clean can reduce smoke, and taking cooler showers may help prevent steam from setting off an alarm.
Current fire procedures require students, faculty and staff to exit the building, gather at an assigned rally point, and wait for further instructions from campus safety, Zavada said.
Every building has a designated rally point. Students in the Alumnae and McGowan buildings are to go behind the Emerging statues, students from Gildae are to go to the Wells Fargo Amphitheater, students from Mchale and MacDowell halls are to go to the basketball courts, and students in the townhouses are to go to the opposite end of the parking lot, Taran said.
Taran said assigned evacuation points help keep access clear for emergency personnel.