Security Corner: National Fire Prevention Month

Every week, Colby Director of Security Robert Williams writes about a security issue that may affect the student population.

October is National Fire Prevention Month. We take fire safety for granted especially at schools and colleges because the instances of fires are low compared to residential housing and commercial buildings. But, they are still a problem. 

A cow is responsible for Fire Prevention Month. As the story goes, in 1871 Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lateen and lit the barn on fire, a fire that spread to the whole city of Chicago. The fire killed 250 people and left 100,000 homeless. Over 17,000 structures were burned over 2000 acres. Firefighting and fire safety has come a long way since 1871. Thanks to those improvements society is much safer than it was in past years. 

The College has all the modern-day fire detection and suppression systems in place to minimize the severe consequences of fire. Every building has a fire detection system that is monitored by dispatch. The system monitors for smoke and heat. Either can set the alarm off. When an alarm goes off, Security immediately responds to determine the reason for the alarm. The officer can determine from looking at the fire panel exactly where the trouble is, go to the location and investigate why the alarm went off. Facilities inspects and tests the system on a monthly rotation. They have the ability to put the system in silence mode while they are testing it, so the building does not have to be evacuated. 

In the residential halls, a smoke alarm similar to the ones used in homes is in every room.  This seems a little redundant, but there is a reason for it. The home alarms are more sensitive to smoke, and they detect carbon monoxide. These secondary alarms are important because if the regular alarm went off every time someone burned popcorn, toast, lit a candle, sparked up a cigarette or anything else, the main alarm would be going off much more than it does now and the entire building would have to be evacuated every time. You all know how that disrupts things. When the home smoke alarm goes off, only that room needs to clear out. 

Every building on campus has a sprinkler system in it. The sprinkler system goes off when heat reaches a specific level. The intent of the system is to put the fire out before it spreads to another location. The systems are very effective for an average dorm room. On an annual basis, the system is inspected by an outside vendor.       

The campus has over 1000 fire extinguishers. Every month someone from Security inspects the extinguishers, and annually they are also inspected and tested by an outside vendor.

Once each semester fire drills are performed in every residence hall. Every time the fire alarm sounds, you should respond as if it was the real thing. The reality is you have no way of knowing whether it is real or not until after the fact. From 2000 to 2015, 85 students died in fires while at college. 

Don’t take the chance. When the alarm goes off, go to the nearest exit and leave the building. Feel the door before you go through it to determine if it is hot. If it is hot, find another way out. Don’t forget that windows on the ground level are a good exit if you can’t use the door. If you cannot get out of the building, stay in your room if it is safe to do so. Then call 859-5911 for help. Elevators should only be used if it is safe to do so. 

Generally the College’s elevators are only operational if it is safe to use them. Your preference should be to use the stairs.  Elevators should be left available for those that truly need them. Less than 50% of people have a plan on how to escape a fire. Have a plan. Know how to get out of your residence hall. Also know where your assembly area is. This is important so if there is a fire, people can be accounted for. Your assembly location area can be found on the Security website under fire safety. If there is a fire and the alarm has not gone off, activate it by using the pull station.

Candles! They are prohibited on campus for a reason. Almost every year candles are among the top causes of fires. Do not use them. Find another way to smell up your room. A couple of years ago we had a small fire on campus caused by, you guessed it, a candle. 

The other infraction we see on a regular basis is covered smoke detectors. This is a very dangerous practice. Hypothetically, one would cover their smoke detector if they were doing something that involved a lighter or a flame, the very thing a fire or smoke alarm is made to protect you from. In 58% of fatal fires, smoke detectors were missing or tampered with. Other than the obvious, here is another side effect of covering your smoke detector: many times the lack of airflow causes the temperature under the plastic bag to warm up. The alarms are sensitive enough that an elevated temperature causes a trouble alarm to ring into Security. The fire alarm doesn’t sound because it hasn’t reach the temperature of a fire but it has risen high enough that the system senses something is wrong. Low and behold, Security shows up at your door anyway. 

The College spends a lot of money on fire detection and suppression systems.  Let them do their job.    

One final factoid. Of the 85 students that died in fires on college campuses, 75% of those fires occurred on a weekend, and 70% of those students were intoxicated. I do not know all the particulars of the deaths but guessing, more than likely the students were passed out and didn’t even know there was a fire. 

Most everything we need to know about fire safety we learned in grade school.  Let’s not forget what we learned.