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Penn Fire Alarms—Lessons Learned from Seton Hall University

A number of columns were published in The Daily Pennsylvanian recently about “false” fire alarms plaguing residential house occupants at Penn. These articles report the failure of occupants to evacuate residential buildings upon activation of fire alarms because previous alarms have proved to be unfounded. Lessons from a tragic and deadly residential occupancy fire at Seton Hall University on January 19, 2000 communicates sufficient reasons why it is important to evacuate to the prescribed designated area for a residence building every time a fire alarm activates.

A CBS 48 HOURS television program entitled “Campus Insecurityaired on April 3, 2001, reporting on the fire at Seton Hall as one of its topics. The primary lesson communicated by a portion of this program is that a number of unfounded fire alarms were transmitted in the residence hall earlier in the evening and when the “real” fire alarm sounded in the early hours of the morning, some students delayed evacuation or did not evacuate at all. Three freshmen died and the majority of this portion of the program reported on the pain received from severe burns and the protracted rehabilitation of a student that delayed evacuating the building. This student delayed his evacuation because the previous alarms that evening were unfounded. When he did evacuate, it was accomplished through searing heat, smoke and flames. He spoke of how fortunate he was to be alive despite the extensive physical and psychological scarring that he received from his burns.

A Shared Responsibility

Every member of the Penn community has a role to play in ensuring the safety of students, faculty and staff from the life hazards, property destruction and business interruption that can be caused by even the smallest of fires. Along with other members of the Penn community, students hold the shared responsibility of immediately reporting the occurrence of a fire. This can be accomplished by pulling a manual fire alarm pull station and/or making a phone call from a safe location to the Division of Public Safety’s PennComm Center by dialing 511 on a campus phone or (215) 573-3333 on an off-campus or cell phone, and evacuating every time a fire alarm sounds. An additional responsibility for residential occupants is to monitor all types of cooking to make sure smoke is not produced in amounts sufficient to activate smoke detectors connected to the building fire alarm system.

The University is ultimately responsible to install, test, maintain and certify fire alarm systems and to  investigate the cause of all fire alarm activations across campus. If a fire alarm system is activating for reasons other than the purpose for which it was designed, the University has the responsibility to correct the issue immediately. The Division of Public Safety’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services works constantly with Facilities and Real Estate Services in reducing and eliminating the nuisance type of fire alarms that disrupt the lives of the occupants in residential housing. This responsibility is a major task that requires constant attention because every building on campus has a fire alarm system with multiple detection devices inside of it. 

False Alarms vs. Accidental Alarms

The headline for an article printed in The Daily Pennsylvanian on November 16, 2004 read “Stouffer renovations prompt false fire alarms.”This headline and article requires clarification; Penn does not have a false alarm issue on campus. A false fire alarm is an alarm transmitted by a person with malicious intent without products of combustion present. The University has very few, if any, false alarms per year. Many times, accidental alarms are the cause of non-emergency fire alarm activations. Accidental alarms can be induced by the residential occupant by not attending to or overcooking food. Another reason for an accidental alarm is contractors failing to properly notify the Division of Public Safety Communications Center (PennComm) of work being performed on a fire alarm system or failing to temporarily “zone-out” fire alarm system detection devices and thus activating these devices from heat or smoke generated in the renovation process.

At other times, a fire alarm can be classified as a malfunction of the system. Malfunctions occur because a fire alarm system functions for reasons other than the purpose for which it was designed. For example, surges or drops in a City of Philadelphia water main pressure or surges of electricity from a lighting storm could cause a fire alarm system to activate without any smoke or fire present. Penn works constantly to engineer the appropriate solutions to avert these types of activations once identified. In any event, living in a large community such as Penn subjects us all to the behavior of others; however, this should not influence us from responding responsibly and safely in accordance with a building evacuation procedure when a fire alarm is activated. 

Immediate Reaction

The Penn community has the right to experience a campus atmosphere that is absent from frequent nuisance fire alarms. Nuisance alarms are not conducive to learning or living; however, one should never fail to respond to the sound of a fire alarm. Your safety depends on reacting immediately. To report fire alarm issues during business hours call the Department of Fire and Emergency Services at (215) 573-7857 or (215) 573-3333 on off-business hours. We in Fire and Emergency Services will be happy to work with you to enhance the safety of our community.

—Maureen S. Rush, Vice President, Public Safety

—Ted Bateman, Chief, Fire and Emergency Services
Division of Public Safety

—Gene Janda, Deputy Chief Fire and Emergency Services
Division of Public Safety



  Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 20, February 8, 2005


February 8, 2005
Volume 51 Number 20


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