Fire Alarm
Inadequate, missing fire equipment
endangers residence hall students' safety

Few things are more frightening than being woken by a fire alarm -- except perhaps not being woken by one.

During the recent fire in Dorm 9, there were problems with the fire-alarm system, and fire-fighting equipment was unavailable. Many of the same dangers may exist in other campus buildings, and they must be addressed immediately. The Dorm 9 fire should serve as a warning, and campus fire systems should be inspected and upgraded before they are needed again.

The first concern to address is fire alarms. There are conflicting reports of the operation of the alarm in Dorm 9 the morning of the fire. Many residents were not roused by the residence hall's alarm, but rather by fellow residents knocking on doors.

Due to the high number of false alarms in previous years, the alarm system was programmed with a 3-minute delay between the time the sensors detect a fire and the time the alarm begins to sound. Physical Plant officials said a fire may burn for up to 10 minutes before an audible alarm sounds in the building. In the Dorm 9 incident, that alarm came so late nine students were trapped on the fourth floor, unable to access the building's stairwells.

Once the building's fire alarm was finally activated, it only sounded for 30 seconds before the fire damaged the system, shutting it off. A fire-warning system that can be disabled by a fire is useless.

Even if the residents of Dorm 9 had been alerted to the fire as soon as it started, they could not have fought the blaze. As in most campus residence halls, fire extinguishers were not available in Dorm 9.

Fire extinguishers are not publicly accessible in on-campus residence halls. In Residence Life housing, fire extinguishers are located in the rooms of each resident adviser and the hall office. This places at least one extinguisher on each floor, though it is located in a locked room. In Corps residence halls, however, fire extinguishers are kept with each commanding officer. These officers are randomly placed throughout the hall, meaning some floors may not have any fire-fighting equipment.

As with the 3-minute delay, the fire-extinguisher regulation is designed to prevent pranks. Unfortunately, in attempting to curb these inconveniences, University decision makers are risking lives. A fire extinguisher could save personal items, prevent serious building damage or make the difference between escaping safely or being trapped on the fourth floor.

In addition to these concerns, University officials must be sure residence hall staff and residents have appropriate fire training. Residents must be aware of evacuation procedures, staff must understand how the alarm system works and everyone must have access to a working fire extinguisher.

The Dorm 9 students were fortunate. The only injuries were two cases of smoke inhalation. Next time the results could be far worse.