Piercing sirens ring through the halls of Harrington Hall, jolting awake the students who had been peacefully sleeping in on Saturday morning on Oct. 23. Bright flights flash overhead as they climb out of bed and groggily make their way outside to the lawn, grumbling in annoyance. The fire department arrives shortly and finds no sign of a fire. The students return inside, wondering what had set off the alarm this time — someone smoking? Cooking? Someone using a hair dryer? In any case, they’re glad it’s over.
Then it happens again, five minutes later. Sirens go off and students gather outside, frustrated. Once again, no sign of a fire is found, and they go back to their rooms, muttering about a waste of time.
Then it happens again, a third time. Then a fourth. Four false fire alarms, all in the span of 45 minutes. By the end of it all, students’ annoyance had given way to pure perplexion.
“It was just confusing,” Harrington resident Ibtesam Mohamed said. “We were like, ‘what in the world is going on?’ I still don’t know what caused that. Four in one hour is just crazy.”
This semester has seen a significant uptick in false fire alarms, which are caused by anything but a fire. According to Harrington Campus Advocate (CA) Joe Yusaitis, most are caused by innocent accidents.
“No one’s going around deliberately setting off the alarms,” Yusaitis said. “They’re usually caused by cooking or anything that lets out a lot of steam or smoke. Some of them are possibly caused by students smoking.”
Although the problem has been especially pronounced in Harrington, other halls have faced similar issues as well. McDonough Hall, for example, had a few false alarms in recent weeks.
“It’s not just the inconvenience caused by the alarms that’s a problem, there’s a long-term effect too,” McDonough resident Amy Francis said. “It trivializes the real issue, which is the possibility of an actual fire. People will stop taking the alarms seriously and not go outside. But what if there’s an actual fire? The false alarms make it hard to really take that threat seriously.”
That’s already been taking place. A McDonough resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, described how the alarms have lost their significance to him because of all the false ones.
“I literally just stopped going outside,” he said. “Why would I? There have been so many false alarms and not a single real fire. The chances of me actually being in danger are pretty slim to none. So I just close the blinds, turn off my lights, and stay inside listening to music or something to block off the sounds of the alarms.”
All residence halls devote time at the beginning of the semester to explain to students how to avoid setting off the alarms accidentally. But according to Harrington CA Michael Caraballo, such measures don’t always help.
“A lot of the students just nod their heads but don’t really take it very seriously,” Caraballo said. “Sometimes it’s hard for the message to get through to them.”
This often leads to students not remembering basic guidelines on how to avoid setting off the alarms.
“Everyone thinks, ‘oh, I’m never gonna make a mistake like that,’ “ Carabello said. “And so they don’t pay attention, and end up making that exact mistake.”
In late October, Harrington had three alarms in one night, the latest of them being at 11:30 p.m. The CAs and students shared their frustration and held a meeting outside on the lawn while everyone was still outside. Harrington Hall Community Director Maria Barinova reminded everyone that no one wants to be out here at this time of night and in the cold, and that the next person who accidentally sets off an alarm will face serious consequences.
Harrington CA Hannah Downs took the opportunity to remind students of basic guidelines to follow to avoid false fire alarms.
“You should absolutely not be smoking indoors at all,” Downs said as students gathered around on her the lawn. “It’s really not that hard to just step outside. And please, please, when you’re making mac and cheese, put some water in it.”
One recent alarm was accidentally set off by Harrington resident Beenish Shahzad, who had been cooking in the basement with her friends without an exhaust fan. She was embarrassed by the incident in the moment, but now looks back on it and laughs, remembering what she learned from it.
“At first, I was in denial,” Beenish said. “I was like, ‘no, there’s no way I set it off’. But then the fire department officers explained to me that I should’ve turned the exhaust fan on, because the steam collects near the ceiling and triggers the alarm. I’m grateful that I learned a lot from that experience and that nothing serious happened. The firefighters and University Police were really nice about it too. They were laughing and comforting me.”
Yusaitis noted the great patience demonstrated by the fire department despite having to come to residence halls regularly just to find no real emergency.
“They’ve been really patient and considerate about it,” Yusaitis said. “One chief informed us that during the span of two weeks, he had to come to Harrington literally every single day.”
One possibility that had been previously explored was perhaps the smoke detectors themselves are faulty or overly sensitive. In one incident, Harrington CD Barinova recalled that the smoke detectors outside her room simply went off by themselves with no smoke around.
“Maybe there really is something wrong with them,” Yusaitis said. “It’s definitely something to look into.”
In the meantime, he considered whether it might be helpful to hang up posters or send out emails reminding students of basic fire safety protocol. Certainly the issue has become a source of annoyance for students, having to leave their rooms or wake up in the middle of the night and stand out in the cold. With all the talk of imposing stricter consequences, it might be time to turn up the heat on students who don’t maintain fire safety guidelines.