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Heeding the Fire Warning

Veena Thomas

Recently the Dormitory Council and the Residential Fire Safety Committee announced plans to schedule mandatory fire safety inspections for every dorm room, beginning in the fall of this year. Some students were undoubtedly appalled by the idea of room inspections and a fear that “Big Brother is watching.” In reality, other colleges routinely conduct room inspections for fire hazards, and have far stricter rules than MIT with regard to fire safety. Other college students are prohibited from lighting candles in their dorm rooms for fear of fire, and some are even asked to remove dried roses from their walls, the colleges citing them as fire hazards.

It’s about time that MIT cracked down on fire safety, most evident with the formation of the new inspection policy. Every school-age child understands the danger of fire. We are taught from an early age not to play with matches. Preschoolers can chant “Stop, drop, and roll,” which is drilled into their heads as soon as they are old enough to talk. Growing up with frequent fire drills, we are taught to leave the building as soon as possible, while avoiding elevators, making sure that the door feels cool before leaving, etc. We all know the drill by heart.

So when does this break down? Apparently it breaks down sometime in the college years, as those old enough to know better forget even the most fundamental rules of fire safety.

Witness an event last week, where the Burton-Conner fire alarm went off at 3 a.m. The ear-piercing siren is nearly impossible to sleep through. There’s no mistaking the sound of the alarm for anything else. So at which point do people decide that the fire alarm must be insignificant and ignore it? What happened to all those years of incessant training?

Most people responded to the fire alarm appropriately, perhaps only stopping briefly to grab a coat before evacuating the building as rapidly as possible. Residents of Burton-Conner flooded outside, half-asleep. Peering back at the dormitory, I noticed something strange: through the windows in the stairwells I could see throngs of students huddled on the stairs, still inside the building. I doubt that fire safety rules have changed so dramatically from when I was a kid to now allow students to remain inside a potentially burning building, as long as they stay on the staircase. Granted, it was the middle of the night, the wind-chill outside was probably less than zero degrees, and having to stand outside half-dressed at 3 a.m. was probably the last thing anyone wanted to do. Still, that does not excuse anyone’s behavior. It’s far better to be cold and alive than burned to death.

The next day word arrived that the alarm had gone off the previous night due to a pull station on one of the floors. Rumor had it that it was a prank, though no official word was released. Angry e-mails flew back and forth on the dorm mailing list, demanding justice for the supposed malicious prank. It’s unthinkable that people think it’s amusing and funny to pull the fire alarm, and evacuate sleeping people into the bitter cold.

We know the story of the boy who cried wolf: eventually when there was really a wolf, no one believed him. Ironically, a tragic example of this happened the same exact same night. Three students were killed and 54 were hurt in a Seton Hall University dorm fire. The fire alarms rang, but many students chose to ignore them, lulled by a false sense of security imparted by a series of false alarms before winter break, including four on the first night of finals. Students assumed that the sirens blaring signified nothing more than another prank, and so rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. When students heard screams and saw others covered with soot, and saw thick black smoke, they finally realized the gravity of the situation and left the building. Even so, three other students only left the building more than two hours after the fire, somehow still not understanding what was happening.

MIT has a habit of only taking action after something serious happens. Luckily the new fire safety policies are proactive rather than reactive, and are to be commended. Still, it is up to the students to ensure that they behave intelligently in the event of a fire or a fire alarm. Don’t ever assume the alarm is “just a prank” and not to be obeyed. As three Seton Hall students found out, it could cost you your life.