March 20, 2003
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False fire alarms remain problem at Antioch College

It’s 12:30 on a Wednesday morning when the fire alarm sounds at the Miami Township fire station. Four sleepy volunteers tumble out of their own beds and rush to the station to pull on 40 pounds of fire protective gear and drive two firetrucks and an ambulance out into the night toward the potential danger.

The crew arrives with two police cars at the scene of the alarm, Birch Hall, the largest dormitory on the Antioch College campus. The firefighters take air packs, fire extinguishers, axes and flashlights, and make their way through the long hallways of the three-story dorm to root out all of the building’s inhabitants and find the source of the alarm.

A thick cloud of cigarette smoke hovers in the third-story lounge where a party was raging moments before. It is nearly the 20th false alarm on campus in the last two months.

False fire alarms are nothing new to Antioch College. Since January 2002 there have been 103 false alarms at the college, including 43 at Birch Hall, Fire Chief Colin Altman said.

“The situation has gotten completely out of hand,” he said.

By last fall, the college had accrued so many false alarms that Miami Township began charging $300 for every false alarm that occurs within a 30-day period after each prior alarm. Since the beginning of January 2003 the Township has billed the college $2,400 in fines, Altman said.

The No. 1 cause of alarms on campus is smoking and burning incense in the buildings, according to Dean of Students Patricia Whitlow. When students congregate and smoke at parties in the lounges or in dance spaces, the heat-and-smoke sensitive alarms go off even when there is no fire.

“We go in these rooms sometimes where people have been smoking and you can hardly see,” Altman said. “A vast number of alarms are set off by students not thinking, and there is very little consequence or oversight for their actions.”

Many students seem to think the problem has more to do with the alarm system than student behavior. Fourth-years Sara Diamond and Jennifer Murphy both said that the alarms go off without much provocation. They suggested that the alarms be cleaned, repaired or set at a lower level of sensitivity.

Nathaniel Evans, a fourth-year student, hall advisor coordinator and Fire-Rescue volunteer, said that the problem is complicated, and there aren’t always easy answers.

“On the one hand, students should be charged for alarms that are set off in their rooms,” Evans said. “But on the other hand, the college must be held responsible for proper upkeep and maintenance of the system.”

A college Safety Committee has been meeting since last summer to discuss possible solutions to the problem, including charging individual students for the fines, Safety Committee cochair Madeline Lance said.

“We’re going to be working on drafting a proposal in that direction,” Lance said. “We don’t want to curb [students’] freedom and activities, but there must be some limitations.”

Fourth-year student Claire Arthurs, who chaired the committee until just a few weeks ago, said that a proposal was presented to ComCil, the Antioch campus community’s primary legislative body, once in the fall and a second time in January. The proposal never passed because of difficulty assessing accountability, and it was finally determined that the question of fines was more appropriate for AdCil, the president’s advisory council.

Arthurs resigned from the Safety Committee in mid-February because of frustrations she had with the group’s progress.

The committee plans to present another fire vandalism policy proposal to AdCil sometime soon, Whitlow said.

Altman said his biggest concern is the disregard students begin to show for the alarms after such a large number have turned out to be false. Some students don’t exit the buildings anymore because it is inconvenient, especially when the weather is cold.

“The students don’t take the fire alarms seriously anymore,” Altman said. “Our staff is feeling the effects, and they don’t take them seriously anymore.”

Though only four firefighters are required to respond to an alarm, Altman said four people are not nearly enough to handle putting out a fire in one of the dorms and rescuing people from the building in the event of an actual emergency.

“The students are endangering their own lives,” he said.

Fourth-year student Anne Townsend said that the problem is campuswide. “We have to remember that we would not be in this situation if it weren’t for a campuswide culture of irresponsibility toward the fire-alarms,” she said.

False alarms have increased since the college began renovating buildings on campus and upgrading fire alarm systems about five or six years ago, Altman said. Though some of the campus dance spaces have been fitted with only heat-sensitive alarms, the Greene County Fire Code requires residential buildings to have alarms that are both heat- and smoke-sensitive for greater protection, he said.

Other facilities in the village and township such as the Bryan Community Center, Friends Care Community and the four industries had occasional false alarms. At the most any of these buildings could have three to four false alarms per year, Altman said.

But last year the Miami Township Fire-Rescue spent a third of its active duty time responding to fire incidents at Antioch, which is a tax-exempt institution and pays none of the property taxes that support the fire department, Altman said.

“Right now it’s nothing but an inconvenience, and there’s no incentive not to do it,” he said. “The students are just as [upset] as we are, but unfortunately we have a job to do.”

—Lauren Heaton

Brian Loudon contributed to this report.