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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Lown fire alarms in need of update

Published: March 21, 2014
Section: Opinions

On Wednesday, March 12, the fire alarm went off in Lown. At least that’s what I have been told, because a bell clanging like it’s announcing high school passing period and some flashing lights does not a fire alarm make. “Do you think it’s the carbon monoxide detector?” a classmate asked me as we walked, slowly, towards the front doors. The foyer smelled vaguely of smoke, like a glue gun had misfired. “Nah, CO is odorless,” someone else said.

I took part in the least urgent exodus of all time. Students in my journalism class, myself included, took the time to put away our computers and chargers, put on our coats and grab our bags, because no one took this seriously. We’ve all been victim to a host of false alarms. Last semester, everyone living in Shapiro dorm was herded unceremoniously outdoors into the freezing cold at four in the morning because either some idiot didn’t know how to microwave their popcorn or it was yet another ill-timed drill. I understand that fire alarms don’t discriminate, and that where there’s smoke there may well be fire, and that we’re better safe than sorry. I get that. It’s been drilled into my head deeper than “stop, drop and roll” when it comes to safety around flammable items.

The fact that we weren’t sure if it was a fire alarm in the first place speaks to the need for a replacement alarm in Lown at the very least. It’s an older building, serviceable enough to do without renovation, but an alarm system is not where costs can be cut. An update is in order.

I found out later from a classmate that a piece of photography equipment misfired, so my original glue gun theory wasn’t too far off. People crowded right outside the front doors, some even sitting up against the glass. It wasn’t a big deal this time because an all-out fire didn’t start, but if it had, there were serious safety violations. Very few people put distance between themselves and the building, and while the nonchalant response didn’t hurt anyone this time, people were too complacent.

In the case of a real fire, that attitude is disastrous. I blame what passes for an alarm in Lown. As irritating as the deafening noise and flashing lights are during drills in other buildings, they’re impossible to ignore, and that’s what makes them effective. At the risk of sounding like a fire safety video or pamphlet, there should be no delay in evacuating the premises, no pause to put away valuable electronics and get papers in order. An audible alarm helps contribute to an atmosphere of urgency, of actual emergency.

“Do you think we can go back in?” another classmate wondered, before being told that the alarm was still going off. It was almost impossible to tell, standing outside the building. A lot of people wandered off and left before the fire department arrived, none too hasty. Class time was cut into, and on that day I had a course that only met once a week. That’s not the fault of the administration, of course, but time was lost, and no one was entirely sure why.
I’m no expert, but crowding in groups around the entrance of a building in which an alarm has just went off seems like a terrible idea, but there we were. If the noise from the alarm were near deafening and the lights more persistent, that would not have been the case.

The Lown fire alarm fiasco, for most students, served as a chance to leave class early. While that was all well and good for those looking to get out of class, it was only benign because there was no fire. Habits are hard to break, and underestimating the situation could lead to a repeat of this behavior in higher stakes. There’s a simple fix, simpler than not setting off the smoke detector over something inconsequential, and that is updating the fire alarm so that it is up to standards.