September 28, 2022

Avoiding behavioral fire alarms in the dorm

There is nothing more frustrating that being forced to evacuate your dorm while wearing pajamas from a triggered fire alarm. But when student activities are the culprit of several alarms, the number of residence hall fire alarms can be effectively decreased.

A meeting with facilities cleared up a lot of specifics regarding fire alarms on campus. Capital students often perceive there to be more alarms going off than there really are, but in reality there are no more alarms going off in residence halls than at other campuses comparable to Capital.

There is a substantially larger percentage of fire alarms going off in residence halls when compared to other halls on campus, though. According to facilities management, there have been 68 fire alarms for all buildings (including those at Capital Law School) in the past six months, and 80 percent of those alarms have occurred in residence halls. This phenomena is what facilities refers to as behavioral alarms.

Before someone can understand behavioral alarms, they must first understand the way that the fire alarm system across campus works.

“A smoke detector doesn’t just detect smoke, per se,” Beth Anne Carman, the director of facilities management, said. “Anytime that a particle that makes the air thicker or heavier or pollutes the air—so steam, for example—can set off a smoke detector…When all of a sudden the air gets thicker and the smoke detector can’t tell if its smoke itself or something else in the air.”

Wesley W. Snow, facilities management assistant director, expounded on this concept.

“Anything that’s denser than normal air can break that light beam. [The smoke detector] can’t differentiate what it is, it just knows something is there that shouldn’t be,” Snow said.

With this in mind, it makes sense how unintentional student behavior can set off the fire alarms. This is especially prevalent in dorms, since the activities that happen in the dorm—hair styling, showering, preparing microwave food—are the ones guiltiest of causing behavioral alarms.

Snow went through to highlight some of the most prevalent offenders that set off fire alarms in the dorm.

“People that burn their hair when they straighten it, too much hairspray, … smoke heads in shower rooms, too much steam, burnt popcorn, burnt potatoes in the microwaves. Those are all what we consider behavioral alarms,” Snow said.

Students who want to cut down on the number of residence hall fire alarms should try their best to avoid these behaviors. With some of the unavoidable student behaviors, like using hairspray or making microwave food, it’s important just the students be cognizant of the ways they can cut down on alarms. When using hair products that a fire alarm could perceive as a threat, students should try to open a window or run a fan or even just try to stay away from a fire alarm. These actions alone can cut down on the number of alarms that go off during the school year.

Those who are familiar with the student handbook probably know that many of the items prohibited in the dorms are fire hazards. The dean of students, Jennie Smith, explained the tactics that go into deciding for some of the items prohibited in the student handbook.

“Every year when it comes time to look at the handbook, we make notes from incidents that happened during the year, what changes do we need to make, we look at campus trends, what are other campuses doing in term of policy, what are current issues in campus living…before we make changes,” Smith said.

Most of things that are banned from dorms that involve heat are banned with the intention of keeping students safe and keeping fire alarms from going off. Even when a behavioral alarm is triggered, Smith said that the faculty are aware that it is usually a mistake, and faculty discusses the incident with the student.

“When [someone accidentally sets off an alarm], we try to talk to the student about some alternatives … We try to give them a level of awareness,” Smith said.

It’s important that students be aware of the ways that the student handbook prohibitions coincide with the campus safety, specifically keeping the fire alarm from going off. When students cut down on these behaviors that could set off the alarms, hopefully students will have to deal with fewer alarms in the dorm.

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