The first time a fire alarm went off in junior Vicki Martin’s suite, one of her suitemates had to run out of Sherwin 3 in a towel. It was Orientation Week.
By the 22nd day of school, Sherwin-Neifert had been evacuated for fire alarms 11 times.
But by winter term, Martin had lost count of how many times she’d been evacuated.
“It got to the point when it was just ridiculous,” Martin said.
Of the 602 calls logged by Campus Safety in the 2015 calendar year, 143 pertained to fire alarms, according to a Campus Safety log released to TKS weekly. That’s nearly five calls a week over the course of three 10-week terms.
Those calls were spread out between 39 buildings on campus, but Hamblin Hall topped the list at 15 calls. Sherwin was a close second the Quads building that houses mostly freshmen had 13 calls in 2015. Exec, 240 W. Tompkins St., saw 11 fire alarms that year.
A flux of alarms in a certain area isn’t necessarily indicative of bad behavior, according to Director of Campus Safety Mark Welker. Many of the alarms in Sherwin needed to be fixed by maintenance. Welker suspects a mix of burnt food and smoking inside set off the alarms in Exec and Hamblin.
It’s still not a lot of calls for a campus with hundreds of detectors, Welker said.
“I’m not sure there’s a systemic problem here when you consider the activity on this campus and the amount of detectors we have on this campus,” he said.
In nearly 20 years at Knox, Director of Facilities Scott Maust can only remember two “real” fires: one in Post, and one in Hamblin. Since he’s been here, the school has replaced a lot of the detectors. There’s also a new sprinkler system that will go off and ideally put the fire out before Galesburg Fire Department can even show up.
“In all reality, they are much, much, much lower than when I first started,” Maust said, referring to the alarms.
Sometimes, the alarm was triggered by humidity levels, shower steam or burnt popcorn. But in 68 of the 143 cases, the cause was either unknown or due to a malfunctioning or trouble alarm. Twenty-eight of the alarms reacted to cooking smoke.
“There were so many times you’d hear about people setting them off unintentionally or intentionally, and it was just an inconvenience to the entire building. Because it’s not just Sherwin that has to evacuate,” Martin said. During the first few alarms, she usually grabbed her keys and sprinted out the door. Later in the term, she would take time grabbing multiple jackets, her cell phone, keys and usually something to do outside while she waited for Campus Safety.
“If you took five minutes to get out the door you weren’t going to die. You knew that,” Martin said.
But Maust and Welker agree that there’s no such thing as a “false alarm” and that it’s important to take each one seriously.
“They go off for a reason,” Welker said. “It’s not complicated. They do what they’re supposed to do É unfortunately when they do activate people have to leave the building and it can seem frustrating, but they’re activating for a reason.”
Fire alarms aren’t a big deal for facilities, Maust said, but covered smoke detectors are his biggest pet peeve. Nine incidents of covered detectors were reported in 2015.
“You’re jeopardizing the safety of other people,” he said.
Usually, Campus Safety arrives at the scene and if there’s a problem with the detector itself, they’ll call Maust. He has an on-campus electrician who usually fixes these trouble alarms. Galesburg Fire Department usually arrives at their own discretion.
Galesburg Fire Chief Tom Simkins was not available for comment.
“To me, a lot of them are false, but all it takes is that one to be a fire,” Maust said.
Martin remembers during one of the fire alarms, the entire suite had been evacuated when she realized one of her friends was still sleeping upstairs. Her RA’s friend went back upstairs to retrieve the sleeping suitemate.
The next day, they were all talking about the incident in their Sherwin 3 common room, when another suitemate said she’d slept through the entire incident and wasn’t retrieved.
“What fire alarm?” she asked.