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Dorm Fire Alarms Disrupt Students’ Lives

By Marissa Vogt


The residents of Burton-Conner were evacuated from the dormitory on Wednesday evening for the seventh time this month when problems with a smoke detector caused the fire alarm to go off.

The evacuations this month have been due mostly to equipment malfunctioning and overcooked food, according to MIT officials.

“Some [of the alarms] have been due to cooking, where food was left on a stove, and then set off the smoke alarm, but we’ve also had some that are under investigation,” said Director of Housing Karen A. Nilsson.

Burton-Conner President Jennifer C. Shih ’03 said that Wednesday’s alarm was caused by dust in one of the smoke detectors. The cause of some of the alarms is not yet known. They may have been caused by other safety equipment malfunctioning or by something accidentally bumping into a sprinkler head.

“When we get [an alarm] that doesn’t have an apparent reason, the Department of Facilities comes in to see what the problem is. If there is a systems problem, it will be repaired,” Nilsson said.

Alarms annoy dormitory residents

Many Burton-Conner residents are becoming frustrated by the alarms and the disruption they bring. The majority of the alarms have been between the hours of 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., interrupting study hours, although one of the alarms occurred at 6 a.m.

“Understandably, most residents are not happy with the alarms going off, and they were not very excited about having to get out of bed so early,” Shih said.

“They’re obnoxious as hell,” said Burton-Conner resident Alice S. Tsay ’03. Tsay said that she and other residents re-enter the building as soon as the alarm stops going off. “We’re pretty sure they’re false by now,” she said.

Some residents say that they have started to ignore the alarms because they happen so frequently, and that next time there is an alarm they will not leave the dormitory.

“We’re getting accustomed to the alarms. Next fire alarm, I’m not going to leave if I’m in bed,” said Gregor B. Cadman ’06.

Residents asked to be more careful

The Department of Facilities is looking into the exact cause of the alarms, but in the meantime residents are being asked to be more careful with their methods of food preparation.

“I think people need to be a little more careful with their cooking,” Shih said.

One of the problems, Tsay said, is that “they have smoke detectors in common areas and kitchens but not general hallways,” making it easy for smoke from cooking to set off an alarm.

Shih also mentioned that e-mails have been sent out to make people more aware of the problem and to ask them to close suite doors or to open windows while cooking to prevent the alarms from going off.

MIT unlikely to receive fines

Despite the large number of false alarms, Nilsson says that it is unlikely that the Cambridge Fire Department will fine MIT unless the alarms are pulled intentionally.

“When they come to an alarm and the smoke detector has gone off, the fire department does not charge us. If we had deliberate false alarms people deliberately pulling an alarm or knocking off a sprinkler head, they could. We’re fortunate [that] that does not usually happen here at MIT, for that inconveniences the entire building,” Nilsson said.

Burton-Conner has had problems with its fire alarm system in the past. Similar events happened last March, when faulty equipment and burnt food prompted three false alarms in one weekend. An alarm system installed in summer 2001 caused a string of false alarms last fall that continued through finals week.