March 17, 2011

Majority of Campus Fire Alarms Set Off by Burned Food

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Although there were 114 incidents of activated fire alarms in campus dorms from March 2010 to February 2011, only two were caused by actual fires.

Burned food was responsible for a majority of the 114 fire alarms set off last year, constituting 57 percent of calls, according to statistics released by Cornell’s Environmental Health and Safety department.

Ithaca Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Tom Parsons ’82 said fire alarms can be activated by a variety of things unrelated to fires, including technical malfunctions and dust from maintenance work. According to the report, maintenance work caused 13 false alarms and dust caused four.

“[A fire alarm] doesn’t know the difference between somebody heating up a cooking pan and generating a lot of smoke from oil versus an actual fire on the stove,” Parsons said.

The EHS statistics list another cause of false alarms as individuals with “malicious” intent, referring to the deliberate misuse of fire alarm systems in the absence of a fire. Two of the alarms set off in the last 12 months were classified as “malicious,” according to the report.

Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant law ’88 deals with the judicial consequences for individuals who maliciously set fire alarms, fail to vacate a building during an alarm and tamper with fire equipment.  Fire safety equipment has often been abused by students committing pranks, she said.

“We’ve had a number of cases where people either pull a fire alarm when there’s no fire, use fire safety equipment when there’s no need to use them or fail to exit after a fire alarm has sounded,” Grant said.

Grant expressed concern that false alarms could potentially distract responding firefighters, EMS workers and police officers from actual emergencies.

The high rate of false alarms in dorms can lead students to expect that any fire alarm is either a false alarm or a drill, Parsons said.

“If the building has had an alarm there more than once in the same 24 hour period, it makes you think, ‘Oh, it’s another alarm,’” Parsons said. If people then do not vacate in a real emergency, “firefighters have to attend to getting people out of the building instead of attending to the fire,” he said.

Additionally, fire departments must react to all fire alarms as serious emergencies and false alarms present the added hazard of possible traffic accidents for firefighters driving to the scene, Parsons said.

Students who are caught intentionally causing false alarms can be arrested with criminal charges or referred to the Judicial Administrator, said Cornell University Police Department Deputy Chief David Honan in an e-mail statement. In the latter case, students could receive disciplinary probation or suspension, Grant said.

“There’s a lot of things people do as pranks that are silly and harmless,” Grant said in reference to the false alarms. “This is not a silly, harmless prank.”

Original Author: Dennis Liu