Administration, Security respond to pulled fire alarms

Since the beginning of the academic year, there have been approximately 40 incidents of fire alarms going off in residence halls, according to Security reports. Some of those have been due to relatively harmless catalysts, such as burnt toast, hair spray, and candles. However, out of those 40 incidents, nearly 20 have been related to pull stations, and deemed “non-accidental” by Security.

Although fire alarms can be activated accidentally, Director of Security Peter Chenevert commented in an interview that “compared to last year, there has been an increase in pull station alarms.” Pull stations are the small, red boxes usually seen by doors and are available for students to pull in case of an emergency.

This year especially, the stations are not being used correctly. As noted by Chenevert, it seems as though some students, statistically late on Friday and Saturday nights, are pulling the fire alarms in a common set of buScreen shot 2015-11-03 at 12.25.42 PMildings. Mostly affected are larger dorms with reputations as social areas such as Heights, Hillside, the Alfond Senior Apartments, and Dana. In a recent survey sent out to the student body by the Echo, over half of the respondents believe that the leading cause for fire alarms on campus is either some variation of “drunk people activating them” or “students pulling a prank.”

Although the students who have been pulling the fire alarms tend to flee the scene right afterwards, this mischief is only the beginning of the problem for building residents and Security. When a fire alarm goes off, there is a certain procedure that Security follows. First, they receive a notification through their computer system in the security office that tells them which specific fire alarm is going off in which building. They can also see at that time whether or not the sprinklers in the surrounding area have been triggered. If the sprinklers have been triggered, Security immediately calls the local Waterville fire department and sends an officer to the building. On the other hand, if the sprinklers have not been triggered, Security dispatches an officer to assess the situation and turn off the alarm. When the officer gets to the scene, if at any point he or she thinks the fire department needs to be called, he or she will do so. Otherwise, the officers will dissolve the situation by themselves and turn off the alarm.

A common question from students related to Security protocol, however, is why the fire alarms seem to go off for such a long time after they are activated. According to Chenevert, the increase in the duration of the alarm is directly tied to the amount of students who choose to stay in their dorm when an alarm goes off. Out of the 112 students surveyed, almost half of them (46.4%) said that they either “always” or “sometimes” ignore a fire alarm when it goes off. When students choose to remain in the building or in their rooms, what some people assume is a harmless drill becomes an extremely large safety issue for Security and can increase their time spent in the building. If Security comes in contact with someone who has failed to exit the building for the alarm, the officer is required to escort that individual out of the building. If there are multiple interruptions of this sort on their way to disarming the system, it can drastically increase the duration of the alarm. 

Students who choose to ignore the alarm and remain in the building not only increase the duration of the alarm, but also pose a safety issue. Associate Dean of Students and Director of Campus Life Erika Lamarre stated in an interview that as more and more students choose to ignore alarms, it becomes “increasingly dangerous as [they] becomes desensitized to the sound of fire alarms.” Because of the number of false alarms, many students are beginning to believe that every time the fire alarm goes off, it is only due to an intoxicated student or a prank. Although most of the time these assumptions are correct, Security and Campus Life hope that students will understand that it could potentially be a real fire every time the alarm is triggered. Furthermore, even though Security has an extremely intelligent and comprehensive software system that tells them exactly where a fire alarm is activated, and whether the sprinklers are triggered, Chenevert commented that, “even with the best system, something can go wrong.”

Regardless of whether or not the alarm indicates an actual fire, the recent increase in pulled fire alarms is more than just a nuisance to the people who reside in the respective buildings. Lamarre said that “pulled fire alarms are not a victimless crime; they affect students’ quality of life.” If pulled during the night, they can potentially thwart students’ sleeping schedules, and ultimately harm a students grades, sport performance, and other extra-curricular activities that they care about.

Ultimately, this is an issue that needs to be addressed by both the administration and student body. Lamarre believes that “Colby students care about this issue, but perhaps don’t know how to hold one another accountable.”

The Administration has started talks regarding how to combat pulled fire alarms. Although nothing has been finalized yet, students could potentially notice the implementation of cameras in the Alfond Apartments, according to Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Jim Terhune, or physical indicators, such as ink packets on pull stations that will help identify who exactly pulled the alarm. Ultimately, Chenevert summed up the issue plainly and eloquently: “these aren’t systems to be played with; these are life safety systems and need to be taken seriously.”

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