By Sadie Slager
A late-night evacuation on Halloween was among the most recent incidents in string of unplanned fire alarms in Ohio Wesleyan’s residence halls.
These alarms, particularly in Smith Hall, are attributed to substances other than smoke setting off the alert system. There have been no legitimate fires in Smith this year, but multiple alarms have been caused by fire extinguishers being removed from hallways and the contents being sprayed throughout the building.
Sergeant Chris Mickens of Ohio Wesleyan’s Department of Public Safety explained the dangers of removing fire extinguishers as a prank.
He said if the pin is removed from an extinguisher and the foam is sprayed, the alarm system for a whole building can go off, forcing all residents to evacuate until the coast is clear.
“People may think the substance that comes from fire extinguishers is smoke because of what it looks like, so it can cause a panic,” Mickens said.
In the early hours of Nov. 1, powder from a fire extinguisher was found in the Smith East elevator. The extinguisher, half empty, was found in the hallway of the building’s fifth floor. While the alarms in individual rooms can be set off by common aerosol substances, Mickens said this incident was caused by the extinguisher’s foam activating a full-building alarm or someone pulling the alarm after seeing extinguisher foam in the air.
“With the detectors in Smith rooms, hairspray or deodorant can activate the alarm, but it won’t activate the full building alarm system,” he said. “When a certain amount of particles of dust or bugs block a certain part of the smoke detector in a room, it can be set off as well. However, if a substance is in the hallway, like a sprayed fire extinguisher, the whole building alarm can go off.”
Mickens said it is very difficult to find out who has removed extinguishers without hearing from someone who witnessed the incident. He said it is dangerous to remove extinguishers because they are there for a purpose and are a part of the larger fire safety system.
“Throughout my time here, we’ve only know about 10 percent of who removed the fire extinguishers, and it’s usually by luck if we can find this out,” Mickens said.
With it being such a small campus students are sometimes hesitant to report other students for such actions, Mickens said.
Mickens said the only two fires on campus this year were at Sigma Chi and Delta Tau Delta, and both were caused by a discarded cigarette.
While he can’t recall an alarm being pulled as a prank this year, Mickens said this has sometimes been an issue during his 13 years at WU. He said that for about a third of his time here, Smith, Bashford Hall and some fraternities have had frequent instances where fire alarms were pulled when there was not a fire. Some alarms could have been accidentally bumped, because some old pull stations were easily set off. Pull stations now have glass covers so they aren’t as easily set off.
Mickens said that pulling a fire alarm as a prank could lead to a charge of criminal activity as well as fines for a residence hall.
“In an event when we find out that someone is pulling alarms as a joke, they would be charged and send through the student conduct board or could be charged by the City of Delaware,” he said. “The only way an individual can be charged, however, is if we find out who pulled the alarm.”
Mickens said there may be traces of ink on a person’s hand if they intentionally set off a fire alarm, and this is a good indicator or who has pulled it.
Charges can come from Delaware’s fire department in the event of too many false fire alarms from a residence hall, Mickens said.
“With excessive false alarms, the fire department does have the ability to assess a fee to the university,” he said.
These charges, however, would be paid for by the university and not by individual students unless it was known who caused the false alarm and if they did it with malicious intent.
“The fee assessed by the fire department does not go into the same category as community damages, and students would not pay for it,” Mickens said.
Fire Inspector Charlie Cooperider said recent fire alarms have been caused by funny business as well as students having problems with microwaves.
“We are seeing a lot more students with microwave ovens in the rooms,” Cooperider said. “Also it seems that the students are easily distracted with other things like homework, Facebook and friends and they get sidetracked and forget they put something in the oven. We also still have the ones that think it is funny to pull a fire alarm so they can laugh at their friends as they are standing out in the weather.”
Cooperider, who works with the Risk Reduction Division of the City of Delaware Ohio, said there are different ways the fire department deals with false alarms.
“We do have a city ordinance that allows us to charge for alarm malfunctions,” he said. “If a fire alarm is activated due to overcooked popcorn, steam from a hot shower, or even someone pulling a pull station just for kicks, those alarms would be false alarms and not alarm malfunctions.”
In the case of alarm malfunctions, Cooperider said fees can be charged to the residence which houses the faulty alarms.
“If we determine the alarm keeps going off due to a malfunction, after the third time we can charge a $50 fine,” he said. “And that fine will escalate each time the alarm malfunctions until the alarm is fixed.”
If an alarm does its job correctly, he said, no one will be fined.
Cooperider said the fire department is thinking of limiting the number of microwave ovens in dorm rooms or not allowing them in order to eliminate some issues with fire alarms. Another way to deal with this, he said, is to cite student for “inciting panic due to carelessness.”