Sunday, May 4, 2008

Of fires and fire drills

Kudos to the Hatchet for their continuous coverage of the fire in Schenley. I only heard about this after the fact, so it was really great to be able to go back and get the full story without relying on the people talking next to me in Starbucks.

Ian's post also reminded me of the fire in Thurston three years ago. In both cases, students reported not taking the alarm seriously at first, because -- well, I think we all know why. Everyone hates fire drills. They're inconvenient, they're annoying, and it always seems like they take way too long. Especially in cold weather. A lot of people I know will stay inside for a drill until they hear sirens (or just if it's cold, or rainy, or early.) I slept through one my sophomore year, which was all kinds of interesting. In general, I find fire drills irritating and needlessly time-consuming. Get everyone out, check the rest of the building, let people back in as soon as possible. I recognize the concern for safety, but -- well, I'm impatient. And I like knowing what's going on -- something that doesn't always happen when alarms go off unplanned. A few months ago, Ivory had a fire drill at around 7:30 at night on a Wednesday. The worst part -- besides being outside without a coat -- was the fact that nobody knew what was going on and UPD (and MPD) couldn't answer anyone's questions. Even a simple "Folks, we'll let you go back inside when we're done, which should be within the next hour" would have worked wonders on my mood.

Of course, part of the reason they take so long is that UPD has to sweep the building to yell at people who don't leave. But as the Hatchet wrote three years ago, all those drills and false alarms can have unintended consequences:
In November [2004], Alan Etter, a fire department spokesman, said safety is at risk when students experience a high number of false alarms and begin to assume that any fire alarm is a false one.

"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," Etter said.


[Then-freshman] Ian Sullivan said that he "certainly wasn't rushing" when the fire alarm went off and said he knows that "a lot of people just sat in their room" until firefighters started banging on doors to let residents know they needed to leave.

Tracy Schario, GW's director of media relations, said she had heard complaints from students that the evacuation was not orderly. She attributed this to "a natural sense of anxiety."

"Just given the sheer numbers, there's a natural collection of large numbers of people trying to move down," Schario said.

"When you have a lot of people in the stairway in that situation, it's hard to overcome that natural anxiety," she continued.

Schario also urged students to always heed fire alarms in any building.

"Whenever you hear an alarm, you should always take it seriously, even if it's just a drill," she said. "That's an individual's personal responsibility."
Obviously, fire drills are necessary. Everyone needs to know how to get out of the building in a worst-case scenario, and, as this weekend proved, fires do happen. Thankfully, no one was hurt on Friday, and it seems like this is one area where GW knows what it's doing. While I wish fire alarms didn't go off so often (especially at six in the morning on a Saturday -- thanks, Ivory!), I'm glad the system seems to be working.

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