You’re planning a romantic candle-lit dinner in your apartment, or you’re just settling down to watch a movie before bed, or maybe you are gnashing on your pencil cramming for tomorrow’s midterm. All of a sudden … DOOT DOOT — the fire alarm goes off.
Then the question arises: do I leave the building or assume it’s a false alarm? Students living in college houses other than the high rises don’t face such a difficult choice because they only need to descend a few flights of stairs. However, high rise residents may not evacuate when the dreaded alarm goes off because it’s daunting to walk down 20 — or even 10 — flights of stairs.
About two weeks ago, a fire alarm went off in Rodin College House and the usual automated message came on — “Attention, attention, please move to the nearest stairwell and wait for further instruction”— punctuated by ear-screeching blasts. I was on the 18th floor at the time and waited patiently in the stairwell with a bunch of other people from the hall. But after 10 minutes, I left. As I waited in the lobby, I saw more than half of my hallmates return to their rooms.
If students knew that the alarm was indicating a legitimate threat, they wouldn’t think twice about the effort required to escape a fire. But fire alarms seem to go off in college houses rather frequently, and we’ve become used to these as every-so-often annoyances.
Fire alarms are meant to drive us out of our homes to flee from sudden and unknown dangers. But our acclimation to the alarms defeats this purpose. The recordings’ repetition, the vagueness of the automated message and the absence of an explanation for why the alarm went off afterward all contribute to this dangerous, indifferent mindset many of us now have.
The frequency of false fire alarms is not a problem that Penn can really control. If anything, we as students should remain vigilant about not allowing cooking smoke to trigger a building alarm and continue to watch out for students who intentionally set them off.
But the other contributors to the problem really are Penn’s responsibilities.
The absence of explanations after fire alarms causes students to doubt a future alarm’s credibility. Students don’t get the satisfaction of knowing whether the alarm was for a major or minor reason or if they walked down all those flights in vain. Keeping students in the dark isn’t the intention, but, according to Chief of Fire and Emergency Services Eugene Janda, “On rare occasions, the cause of an alarm is not clearly identified.” Dust or even an insect entering a smoke detector could trigger the alarm, he noted.
Still, if the high rises have fully functioning PA systems, then why doesn’t someone make a live address during the alarm providing information and directions? Janda agreed that this was a good idea, and the University may consider forming emergency teams that would be tasked with this announcement.
Logically, increased communication will clear the ambiguity in the student’s mind of the alarm’s credibility, and will facilitate the evacuation process if it’s needed. Students who work at the sign-in desks could be trained to use the PA system after the source of the alarm is discovered. Residents could then be assured right away that they are safe staying in their rooms or that they need to proceed down the stairs.
Penn has well-developed evacuation procedures. Janda said that in the high rises, for instance, the stairwells are completely fire-proof for up to three hours during a blaze and each elevator has a picture that explains exactly where to evacuate once out of the building. The University has strong structures in place to keep students safe, but now we just need a communication system that will make use of them.
Alex Lustick is a College junior from Narberth, Pa. His e-mail address is lustick@theDP.com. Lu-stick To The Point appears on alternate Fridays.Comments powered by Disqus
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