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.

Rethinking How We Respond to Fire Alarms

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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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5 responses to “Rethinking How We Respond to Fire Alarms”

  1. Tim Zagorski says:

    This will take a lot of UN-Training our minds and muscle memory to evaluate before exiting. The students may be less likely to conform for a semester or 2 but will follow the teachers lead Most of the time.

  2. Alisa Pacer says:

    I have to know what statistics this new line of thinking is based on. Are there enough cases of a fire alarm mis-use being the cause with an active threat to mandate the change. I’d like to know when the line in the sand changed. I understand anything can happen – but I need more info that builds this case please.

  3. These and other comments from offline colleagues are greatly appreciated. This is a radical sort of change, and it’s presented as something to consider. I’m slowly working on a follow-up article that covers the implications of implantation, and how to address admin and insurance carriers’ concerns.


  4. Kevin Altenhofel says:

    * implications of implementation *

    Autocorrect strikes again

  5. Brian Brower says:

    Alisa Pacer,
    I believe what the article is mainly about is that we (the evacuees) need to rely more on our other senses, not just be drones who follow protocol blindly. I recently witnessed an entire wing exit past a class filled with smoke because they followed existing protocol instead of finding an alternative route away from the real danger and out of the building. Practicing these drills exactly the same way every time does nothing for “adapting and overcoming” new or different threats. We need to incorporate a “wrench into the gears” during drills so as to get the staff thinking outside of the proverbial box, and saving more lives during real emergency events.

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