Fire alarm malfunction reveals lack of preparedness

A smoke sensor that went off in Rugby Theatre last Wednesday sparked confusion as some students and teachers evacuated while others stayed in their classrooms continuing class as scheduled.

Covers had been put over the smoke sensors for the Dance Concert the previous weekend because smoke effects were part of the show. There was residue left on the covers and when they were removed the residue triggered the sensors.

What made this situation different from a fire drill was that the alarm was triggered only in Rugby and not in any other buildings. In a normal fire drill, the faculty is alerted ahead of time and the school’s main alarm, which sounds in every building, goes off. However, Director of Intercampus Security/Emergency Coordinator Kevin Giberson said what happened last week is what would happen were a real fire to occur.

Assistant to the Head of Upper School Michelle Bracken said the singular alarm has never been practiced for or gone off in all her time at the Upper School. When the alarm only goes off in one building, the switchboard contacts security on their radios and someone checks on the situation. Bracken said the person in charge of running “point” is Giberson. If there were a real fire he would call it in and try to trigger the schoolwide alarm.

If Giberson is not on campus, then the responsibility falls to another security member. Bracken thought that if Giberson was not on campus during a fire everyone would be “scrambling” due to the reliance on him.

Garrett Lee ’07 was working in the Video Art room when the alarm went off and didn’t hear it. By the time he got to the field everyone was coming up.

“We have to figure out a better way of doing it,” Lee said.

Upper School Dean Jason Honsel, who was in his office when he heard the alarm, said he was “very confused” when he first heard it. He said his immediate reaction was wondering whether he should leave the building.

History teacher Eric Zwemer also said that history teachers “were all just very confused.”

Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra said that because the alarm was only in one building teachers would react differently, but Honsel said that he couldn’t tell whether the alarm was only sounding in one building.

“I would think that if there was a fire alarm going off the safest thing would be to get out of it,” Honsel said.

Some teachers didn’t. Alex Wittenberg ’08 entered French teacher Dr. Jane Matz’ class late and told the class there was a fire alarm going off.

“The teachers in Seaver had no idea it was sounding at all,” Wittenberg said.

Matz acknowledged Wittenberg’s warning, but decided that since the alarm was not going off in their building she could continue to teach her class. 

“I was confused why we were still in class,” Wittenberg said.

“I would recommend that anyone who hears the alarm evacuate,” Giberson said.

Many teachers seemed unsure about how to respond. History teacher Laurence Klein came down from his classroom to ask Bracken how he should react and eventually evacuated.

“The people in general were hesitant about what action to take,” David Alagem ’08 said.

History teacher Dr. David Waterhouse tried to start class but then told his students to go down to the field after Klein said people were evacuating.

Waterhouse stayed in the classroom and upon the return of his students joked that he was “looking for looters.”

Several teachers asked Bracken after the incident was over whether they handled the situation properly.

Giberson sends out a manual on emergency response and also tries to bring it up at FAC meetings every once in a while.

Yet Salamandra said that there isn’t a universal instinct or belief among teachers about how to respond to the singular alarm before reversing his claim moments later. He didn’t seem to think how teachers responded was a big deal given that there was no danger. However, Honsel said he thought it would be a good idea if the faculty was given a reminder or instruction in how to respond.

Honsel himself didn’t respond in traditional fire drill fashion. His job is to herd students to the field and supervise the attendance taking.

“I have to confess I don’t know what it was like on the field,” he said. “I had parents coming in and I stopped and talked to them. I didn’t really see what was going on. I’d guess there was a little confusion.”

On the field, faculty did not organize students and take attendance, in the middle of what some students described as a chaotic atmosphere.

“Really to me it felt like a big clump of people disorganized and confused on what to do,” Alagem said.
“I did my job,” math teacher Ashley Satterthwaite-Johnson said. “But I couldn’t tell if all the students were lined up or if other teachers were doing their jobs.”

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