Campus fires spark concern about safety

Students whose smoke detectors failed to warn them of fires in their residence hall rooms last week said they have new detectors this week but no answers to their questions about the problem.

Officials in the University’s facilities department said their office is responsible for the maintenance of the detectors. But facilities officials said Wednesday the cause of the malfunctions is still unknown. An official report on the investigation is expected Thursday.

“I couldn’t answer whether it was more than coincidence,” said Walter Gray, director of facilities management. “Two smoke detectors failed and we really want to know why.”

Michele Umansky, who lives in the Francis Scott Key Hall room where one fire occurred, said she’s concerned her smoke detector is not the only one on campus that is not working.

“You just assume the University has taken responsibility for all the appliances in the room and makes sure they are in working order before having students use them,” she said. “It’s very unfortunate. I’m sure there are other smoke detectors that aren’t working and people aren’t aware of it”

Gray said the smoke detectors were tested this summer and found to be operational.

Joseph Yohe, manager of risk management and insurance at GW, said several things can cause a smoke detector’s failure, including the possible technical failure of the device. He said sometimes students intentionally tamper with the devices, disconnecting smoke detectors in their rooms to avoid setting them off with cigarette smoke and incense.

The fires may not have given off enough smoke to set off the detector, Yohe said.

The actual cause of the detector malfunctions should be resolved in the report, but Gray said he hopes the incidents will spark a necessary dialogue about fire safety between students and facilities management.

“To determine what is best for the students, we need to hear from the student body,” Gray said. “There are issues that should be addressed. There should be some flow of discussion.”

Residents involved in the fires questioned what kind of maintenance system GW has in place.

“Smoke detectors are such an important fixture,” Umansky said. “If my sink wasn’t working, fine, I’d put in a maintenance request and wait, but this is a smoke detector. It’s a necessity. Fire can kill people.”

Chief Alvin Carter, a public information officer for the D.C. Fire Department, said GW’s use of electrically wired smoke detectors without a battery backup system is up to fire code.

“(But) any kind of added protection is better,” Carter said. “You try to approach that optimum protection. We leave that (decision) up to the institution.”

FIREX, one brand of smoke detector GW uses, manufactures models that are capable of carrying a battery backup. Although D.C. fire code does not require hard-wired smoke detectors to have battery backups, Gray said his department is looking into that possibility for the future.

“Probably in the long term it would be the advisable thing to do to upgrade,” Gray said.

Roger Lyons, executive director of facilities, said his department maintains all fire protection devices.

“In residence halls, all sorts of things happen,” he said. “Students sometimes intentionally and non-intentionally damage their smoke detectors.”

Lyons refused to comment on the factors surrounding the malfunctioning fire detectors.

“Everyone plays a part in fire prevention and maintenance of safety systems, but the University is the one that owns the systems,” DCFD’s Carter said. “They are ultimately responsible for their maintenance.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.