February 25, 2000
The Jan. 19 fire at Seton Hall University was the kind of tragedy every university fears: An early morning blaze in the university's Boland Hall dormitory killed three students and injured more than 60 others.
What made the story even more tragic was what newspapers reported afterwards, that many of the students in the dormitory were awakened by the alarm and simply went back to sleep. Boland Hall had experienced 18 false alarms since September.
Long before the events at Seton Hall focused national attention on campus fire safety, a group of staff members had been at work on a study aimed at preventing a similar tragedy at Tulane.
After a rash of false alarms in Patterson and Butler residence halls last spring, Martha Sullivan, vice president of student affairs, asked Denise Taylor, director of housing and residence life, Ken Dupaquier, public safety director, Larry Francois, life safety supervisor, and Terry Trahan, environmental health and safety coordinator, to meet with her to study the problem.
In preparing a report for the student affairs committee of the University Senate, the group analyzed fire alarm incidents at Tulane last year and came up with some surprising results.
"The impression that everybody had was that most of the false alarms were intentional, but when we looked at the data, we had as many coming from actual problems," says Taylor. "It was people burning things, cooking or lighting candles or from dust or humidity."
Of the 114 fire alarms that occurred in the 1998-99 academic year, only 27,fewer than 24 percent,were judged to be the result of students either pulling an alarm or intentionally causing an alarm to go off. Most of the alarms were related to a litany of environmental causes.
"Smoke detectors are dumb," says Francois, who is responsible for the upkeep, maintenance and installation of fire alarms, sprinklers, fire extinguishers and fire pumps on campus. "They don't know the difference between smoke, dust, steam or insect infestation. In some instances radio frequencies have been known to set them off."
Of the 87 alarms determined not to be intentional, causes included equipment malfunctions (36), cooking-related smoke or fire (18), moisture (17), activations related to maintenance, construction or janitorial work (10), and smoke from cigarettes, matches, incense or candles (6).
While members of the fire safety group say education and proper maintenance are the keys to reducing the number of unintentional false alarms, combating the problem of prank pulls isn't so easy. According to Dupaquier, catching students who pull fire alarms is very difficult, even using sophisticated techniques like applying a florescent powder to pull handles that would stick to the fingers of a prankster. Taylor adds that part of the problem has been a perception on the part of students that nothing will happen to them if they are caught.
"The students have the impression that it's a joke, that it's not a big deal and no one is going to do anything," she says. "And we hadn't caught anyone in such a long time, there wasn't any history of what happens to you when you pull an alarm."
Last semester, however, three students were caught activating false alarms in two separate incidents in Sharp and Monroe halls. The students went before disciplinary boards and received widely differing sanctions, a disparity that led Sullivan's group to recommend that the senate committee on student affairs codify sanctions against students found guilty of setting false alarms.
In December, the committee passed a resolution calling for students found guilty of activating false alarms to be suspended from the university for a minimum of one semester, to be placed on disciplinary probation for two years, and to be prohibited from entering or residing in any residence hall at any time for the following two years.
"I think the students have a definite message from the university at this point that pulling alarms is not remotely funny and it's not going to be tolerated," Taylor says. "The important thing to note is that we're trying to address the problem," says Sullivan, who presented a report on the study to the senate in February.
"A certain percentage of alarms is because of mischief, but a lot are alarms you want to go off. What we're trying to do is cut down on any such alarms that would be false, but make sure that we do sound an alarm at the least possible reason to suspect danger."
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