As residents of Eliot House can attest, there are few greater annoyances in Harvard student life than the dreaded fire alarm. There have been three fire alarms in Eliot since the start of the semester, a fact that has caused many Eliot residents—and undergraduates at other Houses—to grumble that the University should do more to prevent these false alarms. To a certain extent, we agree that the University’s physical resources departments should do whatever they can to reduce the number of unnecessary alarms, but we recognize that no fire prevention system will ever be devoid of false alarms. Because of this, we call upon the University to focus more on raising student awareness of the perils caused by unresponsiveness toward fire alarms—and upon students themselves to be willing to inconvenience themselves for 15 minutes in exchange for their safety.
In conversations both with officials at the Cambridge Fire Department (CFD) and with students at other regional colleges, we discovered that Harvard’s rate of fire alarms does not differ greatly from the standard frequency. Nor is the CFD particularly concerned that Harvard’s demand places undue stress on its ability to respond to calls throughout the city—the department responds to upwards of 33,000 calls per year, which means that Eliot has thus far accounted for all of 0.009 percent of the responses CFD will conduct in 2005. Furthermore, Associate Dean for Residential Life Suzy Nelson said that despite the recent addition of more sensitive fire protection devices in the Houses, “there has been no increase in the rate of fire alarms” so far this year.
Admittedly, Eliot’s recent spate of fire alarms has been somewhat unusual—of the three total alarms of this semester, two occurred within a 30-hour period. The cause of the problem, however, was also unusual and has already been addressed. (A smoke detector in a basement bakery was tripped by steam and water that had been generated by recent maintenance work done on a nearby wall.) We’re pleased that maintenance officials are taking steps to correct this issue, and we encourage the University to do whatever it can to similarly reduce the number of alarms in other locations on campus as well.
In general, however, fire alarms on campus are not activated by such resolvable problems; rather, they’re caused by a myriad of random events, such as a bag of popcorn that burned in a microwave, an accumulation of dust in a basement, or other such unpredictable circumstances. Fire detection systems aren’t human beings, and they will react to these types of occurrences as they would to a real fire hazard. Realistically, the sensitivity of fire alarms cannot be reduced without somehow compromising student safety, which is, of course, the overriding concern.
Nevertheless, the University can and should do more to enhance student safety by taking steps to eliminate the commonly held attitude of indifference toward fire alarms. Some of this indifference is caused by a lack of information—a fire alarm will go off, students will go through the motions of evacuation, and then life will continue as it did before, with students being no more aware of why they should even bother to evacuate in the first place. We recommend that each House send an e-mail to its students following each fire alarm that details what caused the alarm and what is being done to resolve the problem (especially in cases like the Eliot bakery). These messages should invariably end with a strong reminder that students take alarms seriously regardless of the actual probability of a real fire hazard.
Ultimately, however, the responsibility for student safety falls to the students themselves. “It is each student’s individual responsibility to evacuate in case of a fire alarm,” said Dean Nelson, a statement that reflects both University policy and the law, which requires that all persons in a public building evacuate in the event of a fire alarm unless it’s unsafe to do so. The rationale behind these policies is irrefutable: regardless of the annoyance of having to leave one’s room, it’s infinitely better to suffer 15 minutes of frustration a few times a year than it is to find oneself trapped inside of a burning building.
In 2000, three students at Seton Hall University died in a dormitory fire. Such tragedies are avoidable, however, and we call upon the University to raise awareness of fire safety—and for students to react more responsibly when they hear the shrill wail of a fire alarm.