The Dorm That Cried Fire
At 1:30 a.m. on a rainy October morning, a student burned a bagel in Fraser Hall and quickly hurled the smoking toaster out the window. Unfortunately, this last-ditch effort to keep the fire alarms from going off failed and the building had to be evacuated. This was not the first false fire alarm, nor will it be the last.
Due to the abundance of these fire alarms in the absence of fire, residents dubbed the alarms as faulty and expected repairs. However, fixing the fire alarms was not part of the plan; instead, on Wednesday, November 28, 2018, Fraser Hall was put on fire alarm probation. In early February, that probation period ended and all toasters and microwaves were removed from Fraser dorms.
In a building-wide meeting that night, Director of Community Life Erin Thiessen informed Fraser residents of the new two-alarm limit per semester—a response to an alarm inspection that took place previously. Though it started as a quick check of sensors and alarms, it quickly became a full-fledged inspection involving confiscation of some personal property that was deemed hazardous. “It makes perfect sense how it escalated,” said Thiessen. The fire department wanted to confiscate all hazards upon inspection, but during the meeting, Thiessen told Fraser residents, “[you] deserve a trial period where you can show us that you can be responsible about this.”
Thiessen said that administration did not want to take this drastic step of removing microwaves and toasters, but Fraser is currently costing TWU a lot of money. It costs TWU $300 every time the fire department is called. However, Thiessen is hopeful that, with proper care on the part of the students, the constant false alarms will stop.
Fraser’s smoke detectors themselves are not the problem. “The equipment is functioning exactly as it needs to,” said Jo Jansen, Assistant Director of Risk and Safety at TWU, “it’s not overly sensitive.” Instead, the problem stems from cooking in the individual dorm lounges. Even using a toaster or microwave that is not properly cleaned is a risk. “The dorm lounges are not like your kitchen at home,” Jansen explained.
The placement and number of smoke detectors in Fraser compared to other dorms is a contributing factor to the ratio of alarms between buildings. The official fire alarm count this year stands here: Douglas has had three alarms—one of which was a real fire. McMillan and Skidmore have had two each. Fraser has had 15.
Following Christmas Break, the fire alarms blared once, then twice, and the breach of the trial period placed in November caused a confiscation of all microwaves and toasters in Fraser Hall in an effort to minimize alarms and the risk of fire. The prohibition of appliances is headed by the Langley Fire Department, not Student Life. But it was not the fire department that initially removed them. Instead, these appliances were taken by students who left other students’ phone numbers on fake fire department posters. According to Thiessen, the final decision to remove the microwaves was made after the prank.
Education about fire safety and cooking in dorms is going to be the key aspect in reducing the number of fire alarms moving forward, Jansen explains. The false alarms are “counterproductive on every level,” both to the university and to the students.
The false alarms pose a safety risk as well. Fraser resident Sydney Dvorak experienced this first hand. “It’s unsafe because we take the alarms less seriously,” says Dvorak.
“When the fire alarm goes off at one in the morning, I’m not going to think that the building’s on fire. I’m going to think some idiot tried to make bacon in their microwave.”
If the alarm sounds for a real fire, Dvorak explains, many residents would only assume that it is another false alarm, and stay in a burning building. Jo Jansen says that it is like “the boy who cried wolf.” Dvorak agrees with him. “Except, it’s the dorm that cried fire,” she says.
These false alarms have brought Fraser Hall itself to the attention of the fire department, according to Thiessen. It is an old building, and a fire would be potentially disastrous. This fire risk and the amount of fire alarms have become two separate issues, though linked. The fire department has come down hard on other appliances as well, including extra furniture and decorations. Many of the walls in dorm lounges have been stripped down to their beige spackle paint in an effort to keep Fraser standing. The actual risk of fire in Fraser Hall, the risk to students who have come to ignore the constant fire alarms, and appliances that could cause fire create a situation that Thiessen aptly describes as “a perfect storm.”