Fire safety 101 must be priority of nation's colleges

January 25, 2000|By Ernest F. Imhoff

FIRE moves fast. In minutes, it kills and hurts by burning, poisoning, suffocating.

Maliciously set false alarms do equal harm. Besides costing a few thousand dollars a needless run, they may keep firefighters away from fighting real fires. They may cause accidents involving trucks rushing to an assumed blaze. Given repeated phony alarms, they may be ineffective when the real thing happens. People stop listening.

Crying wolf may have contributed to injuries and even deaths in the tragic dormitory fire last Wednesday that killed three freshmen and hurt more than 50 students (five seriously), two firefighters and three police officers at Boland Hall at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Investigators are still searching for the cause.

Investigators have raised two concerns: the lack of sprinklers at Boland (which was built before 1984 regulations requiring them) and many prank alarms, which were so frequent in recent years that many students no longer responded to them. Many didn't budge until they smelled smoke or heard others yelling, "It's real."

"When I first heard the alarm, I thought, `I'm not leaving,'" Marissa Lorenz, 18, told the Associated Press after leaving a hospital. "I mean, there are so many of them."

Rash of prank alarms

A university spokesman was quoted as saying there were far fewer false alarms at Boland this academic year than in previous years. How many so far? 18. Some perhaps were mechanical malfunctions, many of them deliberate acts.

"Eighteen? There's something extremely wrong there," said James D. Moran, a retired Baltimore firefighter with 32 years experience. "Students who pull alarms as a joke don't understand how serious an offense this is.

Malicious false alarms by students have been an intermittent problem for years at college dormitories nationwide. Not yet in the grown-up world, some students assume fire can never happen to them.

Not monitored in their closed environments, false alarmists in residence halls see easily activated alarms, emergency numbers or smoke detectors as temptations to annoy others, to have fun, to vent.

Mr. Moran, who was a pump operator here, recalls individual incidents but no major continuing problem at Baltimore colleges.

In recent years, however, a random sampling shows concerns at such scattered places as the University of Illinois, Kansas State University and Michigan State University.

"Rash of false fire alarms causes headaches" said the Daily Illini at Urbana-Champaign, Ill. "Pulling false alarms endangers entire city," reported the Collegian at Manhattan, Kan. "False fire alarms disrespectful to all," said the State News at East Lansing, Mich.

Fires on college campuses are real, making false alarm sprees especially dangerous. The National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit agency, estimates that there were an average of 1,800 fires a year between 1980 and 1996 at college residence halls, fraternities and sororities, according to the Associated Press.

Punish the perpetrators

Strong punishment is needed along with education, says Kathleen V. McNally, of Silver Spring, a foundation executive who is concerned about the continuing problem on college campuses.

She taught economics for a decade at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and, during the 1980-81 school year, was a dean whose duties included housing.

"False alarms were an issue. It came up at many administration meetings. . . . I urged that students found to have pulled false alarms be expelled without recourse. Do that once or twice and the problem will stop.

"My colleagues thought that was too harsh. It was harsh but I thought that was the only way to curb it. I was overruled."

Too bad. Youthful indiscretion is not an excuse for setting off prank fire alarms. Tough response by colleges is sometimes needed. Many college officials are committed to fire safety. More should be.

It's the winter fire season for everyone now. Know where your fire escapes are. Push for education, fire prevention, smoke detectors, sprinklers, fire drills, fire extinguishers.

Fire up close is sheer terror.

Forty-one years ago this month, three friends and I were almost burned up in a fraternity house at Williams College. We were lucky. Fire trucks came quickly and, as a result, no one was killed or seriously hurt.

Firefighters saved three of my friends with an extension ladder. I was trapped between flames licking and smoke billowing inside my room and minus-six degree cold outside on an icy third-floor ledge.

Two big guys, a firefighter and a friend, came to my rescue by raising a ladder to their shoulders, barely reaching my perch by an inch or two. I escaped with mild frostbite.

Nothing was ever the same again. In the matter of fires, the smell of burning wood often brings it back. So do deaths and injuries from fires and potentially fatal false alarms.

Ernest F. Imhoff is a former assistant managing editor for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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