Fire Alarms Undermine Significance of Warning

When the fire alarm sounds in a residence hall in the middle of the night, sending students out of their beds and outside the building, many students wonder what could have caused the alarm.

So what are the reasons behind the incessant squawking and blinking of the alarms that are designed to keep resident students safe from the threat of fire, but usually just end up causing complaint?

According to Gene McAbee, director of public safety, most alarms are set off by cigarette smoke from students who are smoking in the hallways. These alarms usually occur more frequently in the fall semester than the spring, said McAbee, because the students who set them off in the early hours of the morning as they are partying in the halls have usually failed out or have resolved to take on a more serious attitude toward their studies in the spring.

When something triggers a fire alarm, the signal is sent down to the steam plant, where there is a boiler operator on duty around the clock. The boiler operator looks at the fire alarm panel and notifies campus police as to where the alarm originated.

Campus police then report to the scene and determine whether there is immediate danger of fire or if the alarm was set off by something else. Faulty wiring can sometimes cause alarms to go off even if alarm sensors caught nothing, said McAbee.

Sometimes power failure in a building can cause fire alarms to begin sounding, said McAbee, but the building should remain evacuated until authorities have ruled out all possibility of fire.

Some students wonder whether the university is conducting a fire drill when fire alarms go off in classroom buildings and there seems to be no cause for them. According to McAbee, these are simply false fire alarms; the university does not conduct drills in academic buildings.

However, university police are authorized to uphold state laws concerning tampering with fire alarms, and when they find individuals who have set off alarms or have disturbed safety equipment, they are able to prosecute.

Examples of these infringements include tampering with or stealing fire

extinguishers, which carry a maximum fine of $500 and possible imprisonment.

When a fire alarm is sounding in a residence hall, there is no law stating that students must immediately evacuate. However, because of safety concerns stemming from fatal residence hall fires at other universities, the department of university housing instituted fines for students who remain in residence halls during fire alarms. The housing department also holds one organized fire drill in the residence halls per semester.

According to Keith Corzine, Director of Housing for Facilities, it is important for students, no matter how frustrated they may be with fire alarms sounding in the middle of the night, to leave the building each time they hear an alarm. He stressed the seriousness of fire alarm situations when seen in the context of the fatal residence hall fires at Seton Hall and at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Obviously, when you’re dealing with a lot of people, during any given fire alarm, it’s hard for me to believe we’d have 100 percent compliance,” said Corzine. “I think there is heightened awareness of fire drills, fire in general. I think we’re seeing quite a few students evacuating.”