Rethinking How We Respond to Fire Alarms
When a fire alarm sounds on campus, we must pay attention to our sensory perceptions and adopt a more comprehensive response.
It’s automatic, ingrained in all of us since we started attending school. When we hear a fire alarm, we initiate an orderly evacuation. We usually assume it’s either due to a fire or a drill, without even considering a third possibility—someone might have triggered the fire alarm for their own nefarious intentions. How do we plan for that contingency?
In the realm of campus safety, the established protocols have long emphasized the importance of swift, orderly, and automatic evacuations in response to fire alarms. Crafted in response to a series of tragic schoolhouse incidents that persisted until the mid-20th century, these protocols proved to be a resounding success; so successful that since 1958, not a single U.S. K-12 student has perished in a school fire, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
However, in an era where evolving threats demand dynamic strategies, it is crucial to revisit our existing protocols. This article proposes a paradigm shift to advocate for a more comprehensive response to fire alarms. By encouraging individuals to consider secondary indicators of danger before mindlessly exiting a building, we aim to address potential vulnerabilities and thwart sinister intentions.
Incorporate Secondary Indicators
Traditional fire alarm responses prioritize immediate evacuation based solely on the cues of alarms and/or flashing lights. However, this approach may inadvertently expose individuals to emerging hazards, especially when malicious actors, such as active shooters, exploit vulnerabilities within the system.
To fortify our campus safety strategies, we must expand our awareness of secondary indicators of danger. By incorporating a range of sensory perceptions — seeing, smelling, and hearing — individuals can make more informed decisions when responding to fire alarms. Admittedly, this will require “training out” old habits, but the 20th-century protocols did not envision the types of alarm misuse we are experiencing today.
Imagine a scenario where the fire alarm sounds, but there is no visible smoke or smell of combustion. Instead of blindly evacuating, individuals could assess their environment for these secondary signs before acting on the alarm. If there appears to be no immediate danger, these individuals could seek information from designated authorities, and act on that information.
Making the Case for Comprehensive Fire Alarm Response
While the traditional response to fire alarms has proven effective in many situations, the rise of multifaceted threats necessitates a comprehensive approach. By considering secondary indicators, individuals can better differentiate between genuine emergencies and potential ruses. A fire alarm could be used as a distraction, enabling an assailant to execute a sinister plan unnoticed.
As a whole, today’s campus buildings are much more fire-resistant than those from the 1950s. Because modern building occupants are less likely to be surprised and overwhelmed by fire, they can exercise an additional level of caution before exiting in response to fire bells, as we have all been conditioned to do in an almost Pavlovian manner.
In a world where campus safety is an ever-evolving challenge, it is essential to adapt our strategies to effectively address emerging threats. By reevaluating our response to fire alarms, we can bolster our security protocols and empower individuals to make informed decisions in the face of danger. Incorporating secondary indicators of fire, such as sight, smell, and sound, enables us to mitigate vulnerabilities and guard against nefarious intentions. Through this proactive and comprehensive approach, we can ensure a safer and more secure campus environment for all.
Kevin Altenhofel is Director of Campus Safety and Security at Taft College in Taft, Calif., as well as California Chapter President of NACSA, the National Association of Campus Safety Administrators. He was previously a sworn municipal police officer from 2002 until 2018.
The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.
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