GW experienced 51 false fire alarms in its buildings through Oct. 19, a figure that has drawn concern and criticism from D.C. fire department officials.
“(Fifty-one) seems a little high,” said Alan Etter, a fire department spokesman. “This is what happens with false alarms. Whether or not someone is calling one in to be a (jerk), or a mechanical (alarm), this takes away resources from a real event.”
In addition to people accidentally and purposely pulling alarms, faulty maintenance may also lead to false calls.
University Police chief Dolores Stafford disagreed with Etter’s assessment of the number of alarms.
She said 51 alarms is not excessive and is a “comfortable” number of false alarms. Since Aug. 25, there have been six actual fires at GW. Each residence hall has at least one fire drill per semester but could have more depending on each hall’s particular needs, Stafford said.
Human safety is at risk when students experience a high number of false alarms because people begin to become complacent and fail to take the alarms seriously, Etter said.
“There is a danger of building in a sense of complacency when they hear these fire alarms going off all the time and there is nothing,” Etter said.
He also said fire department resources are tied up investigating false alarms when they may be needed elsewhere.
When an automatic fire alarm goes off in a highly populated area such as a residence hall, the fire department responds with one ladder truck and a fire engine to investigate. If they confirm the presence of a fire, the threat becomes known as a one-alarm or box-alarm fire, prompting four additional engines, one ladder truck, a battalion chief and a rescue squad to respond. The fire alarms in GW buildings are directly connected to the city’s emergency call center, ensuring an automatic fire department response.
“You always encourage vigilance on the part of people handling property,” Etter said. “There is this whole situation of crying wolf, but as the fire department we have to respond enthusiastically.”
Since move-in, there have been kitchen fires at Fulbright, Guthridge Mitchell and Madison halls.
To help ensure evacuation, the city can issue a fine to GW the fourth time a false alarm occurs. The fines start at $100 and double for each subsequent offense; none have been issued to GW this year.
So far this year, no students have been charged with failing to evacuating for a fire alarm, but staff assisting with planned fire alarms have had to inform several residents that a fire drill was underway, Stafford said.
One of UPD’s greatest concerns is ensuring that academic buildings are evacuated during alarms.
“People for the most part take the fire alarms seriously,” Stafford said. “When an alarm goes off, sometimes your first instinct is to wait and see if it’s a real fire.”
This article appeared in the November 8, 2004 issue of the Hatchet.