About a week ago Thurston Hall had another one of its seemingly countless fire alarms for this semester. Of course what can you expect when you have more than 1,000 freshmen who have ready access to microwaves and the occasional illicit toaster stuffed into a single building? Fire alarms are going to occur, like it or not.
But during the last fire drill I was surprised to learn how unreliable our fire alarm system is. When the alarm initially went off I was on the fifth floor talking to some friends. I heard a faint siren but it sounded far away and was only discernable every so often. I soon left to ride the service elevator to the basement to finally study for a midterm for which I was seriously procrastinating. I was surprised as the elevator opened on the first floor and I was confronted by a UPD officer who informed me there was a fire alarm set off and I had to go outside.
I waited outside, awaiting the wave of people that always comes with the fire alarm. But after about 15 minutes of sitting outside it was still only the first floor that had evacuated. The fire alarm had failed to sound on most, if not all, the upper floors. It was not for another several minutes that the rest of Thurston came angrily walking out assuming that another fire drill had been set off, like always, at the most inexplicable time. What they did not realize they should have been angry about was that had the fire been real they would have been sitting in a burning building long after the fire had first been detected.
This is not the first time this year that the system has malfunctioned. In October the alarm went off on the ninth floor without sounding on any of the other floors. This situation was the opposite of last week’s fire alarm; this time the alarm sounded when it wasn’t supposed to. But better safe than sorry, right? Not necessarily. As a 2005 Hatchet article reported from a fire department official, Alan Etter, false alarms can be dangerous as well. 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. Thurston has an ominous history of fires. In 1979 a fire engulfed the entirety of the fifth floor leaving 36 students injured and nine hospitalized. A false sense of complacency played a major role in this fire. The most recent fire was no more than two years ago. During that fire a student on the ninth floor was critically injured while many students just sat around in the disbelief that consistently surrounds the Thurston fire alarm system. This was before the $13 million dollar renovation, a large portion of which focused on the sprinkler and fire alarm system. The system should be fixed, right? Isn’t this quite literally a matter or life or death?
Apparently there are still some issues to be worked out of the system. This kind of incident should be totally unacceptable. The University did not even release an explanation of why the system failed or at least some kind of indication that the improvement of our fire alarm system was of any priority. There was no official dialogue from the University to students. At a minimum the house proctors should have posted a short statement concerning the matter. Additionally, if nobody informed the University, there should be a system in place to address that as it would be extremely valuable for GW to know the details of its fire alarms.
According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), university dormitory fires have very specific concerns. These fires are closely related to two very prevalent aspects of dorm life: alcohol and cooking. Alcohol can be hazardous because it “often impairs judgment and hampers evacuation efforts.” This fact, coupled with the sheer number of people who have to leave the building quickly, can be disastrous. Cooking accounts for 20 percent of dormitory fires. But no matter the circumstances, having a working fire alarm more than doubles the chances of survival. This is a poignant fact for the University to remember as it assesses its policy on fire prevention in the future.
It is good that the University has shown interest in improving its fire procedures but that needs to be more than talk. It is an unrealistic expectation to see a perfect fire system in a dormitory as large as Thurston; however, if the past few months after the multimillion dollar renovation are any indicator, the system desperately needs to be re-evaluated. This coupled with some eerie parallels to the situation that occurred during the 1979 fire makes the issue especially important. Contrary to what might seem the case, it is possible to house 1,000 freshmen living on their own for the first time and expect at least some level of safety.
The writer is a freshman majoring in political science.
This article appeared in the November 8, 2007 issue of the Hatchet.