Freshman Robert Nguyen stood with his friends in the pouring rain for the second time late one Sunday night as the alarms of Five-Name echoed through the quads, dragging everyone out into the cold.
The alarms had gone off two other times that same weekend. These additional alarms, along with a shared sense of exhaustion had everyone on edge. When asked about the experience Nguyen said, “It was annoying to go out and for the others who had to wake up and go out. It was very annoying.”
Students were forced to deal with a malfunctioning fire alarm that went off the first time around midnight in the quads. Afterwards, a separate fire alarm rang sporadically on the second floor until 4 a.m.
The third time the fire alarm on the second floor was set off, a campus safety officer found that the problem resided in one student’s personal alarm. Sophomore RA Misha Gondal watched as the campus safety officer turned off the alarm and asked how to do it herself, which she did until the alarm finally stopped malfunctioning. This incident raised significant concerns with students and staff. Gondal was worried about the alarms and Knox’s fire safety, describing it as “a boy who cried wolf scenario.”
Director of Campus Safety Mark Welker said the false alarms were caused by several problems in the system, likely due to them needing to be cleaned or replaced.
“Generally when an alarm goes off it’s because the alarm is doing its job and sensing that something is wrong. Though it may appear it is going off for no reason it is doing its job, we just don’t know what the reason is until afterward,” Welker said.
The occasional false alarm isn’t uncommon for students. Gondal estimated that they would usually have approximately three a term and other students estimated a similar number. When asked, Galesburg Fire Chief Tom Simpkins estimated that they were alerted to and responded to around 116 alarms, though his numbers don’t include alarms they aren’t alerted to.
Welker explained that the alarms on campus are designed to sense particles in the air that could be smoke. This is why Febreze or steam from a shower, among other things, can occasionally trigger the alarms. Nguyen mentioned an incident earlier that year where he was plugging his phone in and that spark was enough to set it off. Junior Brian O’Grady also mentioned an incident when his fan burst into flames, but he somehow managed to prevent the fan from setting off the fire alarm.
The biggest concern that Gondal had was that students would stop taking the alarms seriously. She noted that there was the threat of fines or a visit with the dean for refusing the fire alarm, which would usually be enough of an incentive to get students out of the door, but there were still cases of students deciding that they’d rather stay in bed. Students said they were aware of the fines and that they were a large reason they would choose to obey.
“I’d like to stay in, but I don’t want to pay the fine. I don’t have a lot of money,” Nguyen said.
Along with this, he had a friend who had personally paid the fine that ended up being over $100.
It is far more likely for students to accidentally sleep through the alarm and to wake up to an annoyed Campus Safety officer at their door. One of Gondal’s duties as an RA in a fire drill is to bang on students doors to make sure everyone has left, but some still sleep through this as well.
“Students should always go out if the alarms sound, even though it may be annoying, as this might be the real thing,” Welker said.
This same point was emphasized again by Simpkins.
“Believe it or not I was nineteen once … It’s boy who cry wolf syndrome, students being dragged out into the cold,” Simpkins said. “There’s been situations across the country where kids in dorms have died, and that’s the worst case scenario.”
This is highlighted by a story from junior Jazmin Sylvers, who lives in Williston Hall. Sylvers mentioned an alarm caused by a stove fire that occured while she was away that her RA’s informed her and other residents about through email. Her RA also had to reprimand students for not leaving during the incident.
As well as putting students’ safety in danger, frequent false alarms have a detrimental effect on students’ academics and other campus obligations. Gondal had to send all of her residents to other floors to get what sleep they could, relying on couches and the kindness of others.
Many of the students had classes at 8 or 9 a.m. the next day. Gondal was relieved to find that professors were willing to excuse many of her residents with early morning classes the next day, but that still does not account for the material they missed in those classes.
Spending Sunday night listening to fire alarms going off every nine minutes can make getting anything done the next day almost impossible. Nguyen himself was sluggish during all of his classes the next day, and complained about a headache from the exhaustion.
As Nguyen finally got to sleep, he could still hear the faint sound of an alarm sounding in the distance for several minutes before being shut off. The only reason he and all of his peers did not need to make their way back out into the freezing rain yet again is because Gondal sat by it patiently until, like a fussy toddler, it finally decided to shut up and go to bed.