November 10, 2006

Fireman Warns Against Disabling Smoke Alarms

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Assistant Fire Chief C. Thomas Parsons had a stern warning for Collegetown residents at last night’s meeting of the Collegetown Neighborhood Council: never unplug your smoke detectors, or you might pay the ultimate price.
Parsons was on hand for the Council’s bi-weekly meeting at St. Luke’s Orthodox Church to talk fire safety with tenants and landlords in the Collegetown community. And after dealing with years of broken smoke detectors in area apartments, fire alarm systems were at the top of his agenda.

“Smoke detectors are the only life-safety device these kids have in their places of residence,” Parsons said. “Our effort is to get the message out to students and other residents in Collegtown to discourage them from disconnecting their fire alarm systems.”

Students are especially prone to tamper with their smoke detectors, Parsons explained, because of the mixture of weekend drinking and experimental cooking that form the core of college life.

“The problem is more prevalent in Collegetown,” he argued, “because students aren’t exactly culinary specialists. We’ve seen incidents of people cooking fast with woks or microwaves, and the detector will pick up the smoke.”
Students, though, do not always contact the proper authorities when their smoke detector sounds. Instead, they take matters into their own hands, with destructive consequences.

“Last spring, we had one building whose fire alarm system was assaulted by one individual,” Parsons recounted. “The consequences of that action, had there been a fire, would have been catastrophic.”

Parsons repeatedly highlighted the fact that, all too often, students in the Collegetown area do not know what to do when their smoke alarm sounds. One incident in particular made Parsons realize that area students have yet to receive appropriate fire safety education.

“There was an incident last year when a landlord got a call from a tenant, who called to say that she smelled smoke and heard a fire alarm,” Parsons said. “The landlord [asked her tenant], ‘why are you calling me? Call the fire department!'”

He explained that the first move at the sign of fire should always be to contact the proper authorities.

“This girl’s first reaction was to call the landlord,” Parsons said. “No! The first thing you need to do is get out and call the fire department.”
Fire detectors, he continued, are especially essential for residents after they have gone to bed. Although tenants might detect smoke on their own during the day, their ability to sense fire is significantly impaired after they have fallen asleep.

“At night,” Parsons said, “you can’t detect smoke. By the time you wake up, you’re already ‘behind the game,’ as we say. The smoke detector gives you enough time to get out.”

Still, said Parsons, students living in Collegetown continue to disconnect their fire detectors when the constant beeping becomes too much of a nuisance. That kind of behavior has led to serious concern among area firefighters.

“The [issue] is that we might get to the point of saying that the reason people didn’t get out [of a fire] in time is because the smoke detector was tampered with or removed,” Parsons explained.

For their part, Collegetown landlords are more than willing to make sure that tenants keep fire alarm systems in working order. Betsy Po, a local landlord present at the Council meeting, voiced her commitment to fire safety in the Collegetown area by encouraging more fire safety education for area residents.

“I think a lot of residents don’t have the knowledge [of what to do during a fire] or of how to deal with a smoke detector,” Po said. “Maybe we need to educate them as well.”

The kind of education Po had in mind might be possible under a plan endorsed by Common Council Member David Gelinas ’07 (D-4th), who has long endorsed the creation of a mailing list for students living off-campus. The mailing list would provide a medium to communicate information like fire safety tips and Collegetown building regulations. Gelinas, also present at the meeting, took the opportunity to put his plan back on the public agenda.

“The best way to get information like this to students would be through an off-campus list serve,” Gelinas explained. “There would only be two to three e-mails a semester containing all the information necessary for students living in Collegetown.”

Landlords like Po were enthusiastic about Gelinas’ proposal, and for good reason: the responsibility to pay for damaged smoke detectors usually falls on their shoulders. Parsons was quick to reassure area landlords that swift penalties would be dealt out to tenants found to have tampered with their smoke detectors, citing cases in which the offending parties have been identified and forced to pay for the damage. For Parsons, though, money should be a secondary consideration for area residents thinking about dismantling their fire alarm system.

“My concern isn’t dollars and cents,” Parsons explained. “It’s that you’re disabling a device that will save your life.”