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MIT Can Prevent Dormitory Fires

Recently, frequent fire alarms have been a problem for many dormitories. Regardless of whether these alarms are false, MIT needs to pay serious attention to the issue of fire safety.

In many cases, most dormitory residents do not even know the cause of the particular fire alarm. Certainly, MIT has this information on record. Students have a right to know the cause of such alarms, and it should be made readily available. It would not be burdensome for MIT to disseminate such information.

Since alarms sound so recurrently, many students have begun to dismiss them as merely false alarms. In the January 2000 Seton Hall University fire, which killed three freshman, fire alarms at the particular dormitory had been faulty for some time, and students had become so accustomed to the false alarms that they didn’t evacuate in the one case when a blaze broke out. This prospect should seriously frighten both students and administrators.

Furthermore, MIT’s reticence in the face of the consistent alarms makes it appear they have not addressed the issue. If MIT is doing anything, officials should inform students. Residents are entitled to know what dangers their living environments pose and what measures are being taken to minimize these threats. If they are in fact false alarms, the systems should be repaired. If MIT can spend millions of dollars on projects like Simmons Hall and the Stata Center, can it not ensure reliable fire alarm systems?

MIT administrators must also realize that MIT students are by nature strongly adverse to blindly following instructions. When six alarms go off over seven days, and students are not told that the system has been fixed, students have no reason to heed the alarm system. If students are told the reasons for fire alarms, whether they are false or legitimately triggered, as well as what exactly what causes a dorm-wide alarm to be set off, students would be more likely to improve the situation. For example, if the incessant alarms are caused by carelessness on the part of residents, such as cooking or candles, then students could take well-defined steps to solve the problem.

Students must take active responsibility in ensuring the safety of themselves and their neighbors. Residents should exercise caution and common sense when cooking, and they should obey all dormitory fire safety rules. Although these rules may seem annoying and inconvenient, they are essential precautions to minimize the high risk of extensive casualties.

Some dormitories do not have serious fire alarm problems. Some have reliable alarm systems that are only set off in the event of cooking fires or scheduled drills. There are also some dormitories in which house managers and others take on the duty of e-mailing residents about each fire, so students are kept informed. But that is not enough. Effective mechanisms for notification should be uniform throughout the dormitory system.

The time to address the issue of fire safety is now. MIT has been lucky that nothing horrible has happened, given the apparent disregard for fire safety seen today. Administrators and officials should act before MIT faces an all too preventable tragedy.