February 19, 2003

Departments Unite to End False Fire Alarms

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Cornell University Environmental Health and Safety is currently implementing programs along with the city of Ithaca to reduce the number of false fire alarms around campus.

“False fire alarm activations account for the bulk of alarm responses,” said Daniel Maas ’87, coordinator of Emergency and Event Management in Fire Protection and Emergency Services at Environmental Health and Safety.

The Ithaca Fire Department, the Cayuga Heights Fire Department and the staff from Environmental Health and Safety respond to direct calls concerning fires, activated electronic fire alarms, medical emergencies and car accidents. Cornell students also play a role in the local fire department.

“Cornell University students are bunkers in fire stations, especially in the Collegetown area. They are a good source of people power,” said John Gutenberger, director of Community Relations.

Alert Statistics

Between July 1, 2001 and June 1, 2002, the Cayuga Heights Fire Department and the Ithaca Fire Department responded to 578 fire alarms/medical emergencies/car accidents on campus or on the surrounding roadways.

Of these 578 responses, Maas said, “there were 346 fire department responses to fire alarm activation’s. Of these, only 13 were caused by a fire, explosion or chemical emergency.”

“In the 2001-2002 fiscal year Environmental Health and Safety responded to 43 incidents that were classified as fires,” Maas said. The top causes for these fires were outdoor cigarette disposal container fires, electrical or mechanical equipment fires, kitchen and cooking equipment fires and unauthorized outdoor open burning.

Other incidents that Environmental Health and Safety has responded to have included vehicles on fire, a laboratory explosion fire, minor chemical fires in labs, burnt papers, a fraternity house porch fire, and fires in trash containers.

Although there are many more false alarms than actual fires, multiple serious incidents have taken place.

“This academic year we have already seen several significant fire incidents. In one incident in a fraternity a fire of electrical origin ignited a mattress and at another fraternity an individual set fire to a mattress. Fortunately, both incidents did not result in significant damage outside the room of the fire,” Maas said.

Students also have reacted strongly to fire alarms.

“The fire alarm in my dorm went off in the middle of the night. I thought it was a false alarm. This was the fourth of fifth time it had gone off in the middle of the night. Some of the other times it was because the boiler was overheating. This time, a pillow had caught on fire on the 3rd floor, the floor above me,” said Rachel Hubergsen ’06.

Because most calls are false alarms, a reduction program has been implemented.

“We’ve got a very active fire-alarm reduction program on campus,” said Ted Murray, associate director of Environmental Health and Safety and manager of Protection and Emergency Services.

The department is currently testing various strategies to reduce the false alarms.

One example is the Emergency Services Program, which has 6 members who “provide 24-hour response to fire alarms, fires, explosions, medical emergencies, safety complaints, odors, chemical incidents, and other emergency and not-emergency situations on campus,” Mass said. They also play a role in the inspection of equipment and training courses.

“The large majority of false alarms are caused by equipment malfunctions — anything from playing basketball and hitting the alarm to dust getting into the equipment,” Gutenberger said.

“Alarms caused by construction or other workers are a major source of alarms on campus,” said Maas. “The City of Ithaca recently enacted an ordinance that requires workers to take appropriate actions to prevent false alarms while they work.”

The Office of Community Relations “makes contributions to the city of Ithaca for fire protection. In 2002, out of $650,000, $425,000 was given to fire services,” Gutenberger said.

“Alarm response records are reviewed on a daily basis to look for trends in false alarms that may signal the need for modification of the fire detection for an area or space. This program has been a huge success and has significantly reduced alarms on campus,” Maas said.

Archived article by Elisabeth Becker