Campus Detectors Ring Off the Hook
March 6, 2004 5:06 PM
Burnt popcorn and hot shower steam are two unlikely culprits that are eating away at the credibility of campus alarms.
There are between 40-50 fire alarms per month on campus, 75 percent of which are from campus residences, said Sergeant Jennifer Schwartz of the University Police Department (UPD). Of these, almost all are triggered by burnt food or shower steam.
“Burned popcorn is the biggest culprit,” said David Rourke, associate director of residential life, Mary Ward and Mary Park Halls.
In these residence halls, smoke from burnt food often trips both smoke detectors and fire alarms, requiring evacuation. Some say that because residents are only allowed to cook in a microwave, as well as their inattention to the cooking, food contributes to these false alarms.
“Pay attention,” Rourke said. “Many times residents will cook something in their microwave and because there is no direct heating source, they believe they can leave the microwave unattended while it cooks. With approximately five false alarms per semester, obviously this is not always true.”
“It’s really annoying. I don’t like being evacuated for no reason at all,” said Karen Grasberger, 18.
While the state-regulated sensitivity of smoke detectors is designed to save lives, the recurring alarms cause what could be called a “boy who cried wolf” phenomena.
In one week, Mary Ward Hall resident Leteigra Cahill estimated the alarms sounded five times.
"In the beginning of the week everyone evacuated," said Cahill 18. "But by the end everyone stopped paying attention to them. Pretty much nobody evacuated."
Residents in the Village at Centennial Square face a similar, though not as extreme, situation. While smoke detectors are often triggered, requiring the UPD to respond and deactivate the smoke detector, evacuation isn’t as common.
Yet this sensitivity has some residents fuming.
“It’s ridiculous how sensitive they are,” said Leah Baird, 21.
Baird, a Village at Centennial Square resident, accidentally set off a smoke detector while enjoying a hot shower in her apartment. The steam triggered the ear-piercing alarm, and a soaking-wet Baird had to evacuate the apartment until UPD arrived.
“Thankfully the campus police came fairly soon, so we didn’t have to wait too long,” Baird said.
Average UPD response time is less than three minutes, Schwartz said, adding that each of these calls takes the officers about 20 minutes.
By law, each apartment must have a smoke detector inside, and SF State officials can not regulate the reactivity of these alarms. “We have no control over the sensitivity of the smoke detectors and must treat all alarms the same,” Schwartz said.
Stan Prather, community director for the Village at Centennial Square and who also lives on-campus, said that he’s heard some grievances about the sensitivity of these smoke detectors, but not a lot.
“A lot of students ask us if they can take (the detectors) down,” Prather said, adding that his answer is always no.
While dismantling the detectors is illegal, Schwartz offers advice.
“We do wish that residents would realize how sensitive the smoke detectors are and take measures to prevent smoky conditions while cooking such as opening windows or utilizing the stove fan,” Schwartz said. “Our response to a fire alarm due to forgotten popcorn in the microwave may endanger someone else's life if we're not available to respond to their emergency simultaneously.”
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