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Burton-Conner Fire Alarms Trouble Residents, Institute

By Kevin R. Lang


The Cambridge Fire Department responded to three fire alarms at Burton-Conner House this weekend, two of which were false.

Burton-Conner’s fire alarm system has been set off frequently in recent weeks, sometimes by burnt food, but often by faulty equipment. In an e-mail to the house mailing list, Burton-Conner Housemaster Halston W. Taylor said he was “fed up with these fire alarms.”

Taylor said he was concerned about the disruption to students’ lives caused by the alarms, but also the chance that students will begin disregarding them.

“I am ... concerned that we will have a real fire and people will not leave the building due to all the false alarms,” Taylor said.

However, some alarms are known to have been caused by students smoking or leaving food unattended on stoves. Karen A. Nilsson, director of housing operations, said that the problem seemed to be a combination of negligence by Burton Conner residents and faulty alarm equipment.

“It appears in some cases, when residents are cooking, they may leave the cooking area unattended,” Nilsson said. “It also appears that we are getting trouble calls that turn out to be systems problems rather than a smoke or fire problem.”

Nilsson said that she learned about the frequent alarms through the daily reports on MIT’s dorm alarm systems, but that she had also been contacted by Taylor yesterday.

Students frustrated by alarms

Burton-Conner resident Rebecca E. Clinton ’03 wrote to Taylor to complain about the frequency of the alarms. She said she thought that most were false alarms, but some were due to food left on stoves. However, she said she was concerned with the frequency of the alarms.

“It happens a few times every week,” Clinton said. “It’s really ridiculous.” In addition, the alarms are not a new problem to Burton-Conner residents. A new alarm system was installed over the summer, but it was plagued with false alarms throughout the fall. “It was really bad during finals last term,” Clinton said.

However, some of those false alarms occurred while the new system was being tested, said Jennifer C. Shih ’03, Burton-Conner house president. Shih said that while Burton-Conner has had “a large number of fire alarms,” many were caused by “carelessness while cooking.”

Clinton said many students were starting to ignore the alarms, since they have so frequently been false. Burton-Conner has smoke alarms with strobe lights installed in each room. “They’re really annoying,” Clinton said.

Shih also said that students were concerned with the frequency of recent alarms. “It’s been really frequent this week,” she said. While she worried that some students might be getting complacent about the alarms, she said “a large number of students ... do leave the dorm regularly.”

She said that she had been in contact with Taylor about the problem. “I’ve expressed student concerns regarding the number of fire alarms,” Shih said. She is currently trying to organize a forum for students to express their concerns about the alarms.

Facilities working to fix ‘bugs’

“When it’s burnt food, the system is doing exactly what it should be doing,” Nilsson said. However, some of the new smoke detectors have been found to be faulty. Nilsson said that steam from a pot of boiling water had actually set off an alarm recently.

“I’ve asked the Department of Facilities for their ideas of whether the system is too sensitive,” Nilsson said. “We’re all tired of all these alarms. When you get too many alarms, people get complacent and think it’s a false alarm.”

She said that MIT has had problems in the past whenever a new fire alarm system was installed.

Nilsson said that MIT would continue to work out what she called “bugs in the system,” but in the meantime students should make an effort not to leave cooking unattended. She said other dormitories also had problems with fire alarms due to unattended cooking. “It’s not just in Burton House,” Nilsson said.

No fines from fire department

While the fire department has the right to fine MIT if the fire alarm system is abused, Nilsson said this is usually only the case if the alarm is being pulled intentionally.

“That, frankly, does not happen on this campus,” Nilsson said. “We don’t have that problem.”

She said she thought the Cambridge Fire Department understood that the recent alarms at Burton-Conner were either due to actual alarms or faulty equipment, and that the department had not contacted MIT about the recent rash of false alarms.