The results of Campus Safety magazine's annual fire survey are in, and once again, false/nuisance alarms continue to be a thorn in the sides of university, school and hospital protection professionals. Nearly half (47 percent) of survey respondents indicated that false alarms are among their four biggest fire safety challenges.
Whether false/nuisance alarms are caused by burned popcorn, shower steam, lack of maintenance, poor system design, careless contractors or pranksters playing a practical joke, there is nothing amusing about them. Campuses that don't address this issue run the risk of wasting precious public safety resources each time an officer is dispatched to check on yet another red herring. Additionally, students, patients, faculty and staff stop taking fire alarms seriously when a fire alarm system regularly goes into alarm needlessly.
Here's how you can reduce the number of false and nuisance alarms on your campus.
1. Appropriately discipline pranksters: Because 8.5 percent of false U.S. fire alarms are malicious or mischievous (NFPA 2008), addressing this matter can have a big impact on the overall number of false alarms. Having clear and fair discipline policies is the first step. During orientations, students should be informed of the penalties of malicious false alarms.
Paul Martin, who is chief of fire prevention for the New York State fire marshal's office and president of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, believes in a zero tolerance approach for colleges. "If you find someone guilty, deal with them through a judicial affairs program on campus, but don't downplay it."
Some universities widely publicize the arrests of those who maliciously activate fire alarms. This is done to warn others who might be inclined to pull similar pranks.
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For K-12 schools, the type of discipline imposed depends on the age of the culprit. "Every time we have an alarm pulled, that person is turned over to the fire department, and the age and cognitive abilities of the child determines whether they are charged criminally or if we put them in one of the fire safety diversion programs," says South Western City Schools REMS Grant Project Director Gary Sigrist Jr.
2. Apply peer pressure to discourage bad behavior: Martin says schools that are most successful at eliminating malicious false alarms are those that have rewards programs for students who self police. After all, it's the students who suffer most as a result of these pranks - they are the ones who must evacuate class while taking an exam or are awakened in the middle of the night.
"Make sure [pranksters] realize that their peers won't tolerate it, let alone campus administration," he adds. "Peer pressure can be so helpful in modifying those behaviors."
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass), for example, gives a $500 reward to students who turn in classmates who have maliciously set off an alarm.