The threat of fire is a terrible reality that facilities of all kind face every day. For many end users, though, fire danger is “out of sight, out of mind.” Unless the threat is imminent, they rarely think of the destruction that fire can cause. That’s why on college campuses – and at other organizations throughout the country – getting stakeholder buy-in is both a challenge and a necessity.
When I joined the University of North Georgia nine years ago as the electronic systems technician, fire danger was not a top priority on campus. Like many universities, we had a fire system made up of local, proprietary alarms. Due to aging and unreliable equipment, we experienced frequent false alarms – sometimes as many as two a week – and our students were getting pretty desensitized to the sound of the fire alarm. Occasionally, the fire alarm would sound, and a few students would remain in their dorm rooms, convinced that it was another false alarm. Obviously, this blasé attitude is a huge threat to the safety of students.
I made it my mission at UNG to eliminate false alarms and, over time, standardize the campus’ disparate fire alarms under one technology. But of course, this type of goal can’t be achieved by one person alone. The entire university needed to be on board – and needed to realize the importance of fire safety.
Fire safety is so easy for both young students and adults to disregard. But the threat of injury and death from fire is very real – even today.
Incredibly, since the year 2000, 86 fatal fires have occurred on college campuses, in Greek housing or in off-campus housing near campus, according to FEMA statistics. As a result of those fires, 123 people – many of them students – have died.
The Importance of Awareness
These tragedies are very often preventable, with the use of fire detection technology, education and awareness of students, faculty, staff and even visitors. At UNG, my team and I have made campus-wide awareness a priority, by training staff members and getting students involved.
Training Staff Members
UNG is a large campus, with 35 buildings totaling more than 2 million square feet. That’s a lot of space to safeguard from fire, which is why it’s so beneficial for our campus to employ the same fire alarm technology in every building. With a standardized solution, our campus officers are able to become familiar with the operation of the fire alarm panels.
Following a fire alarm on our campus, the building is evacuated and our public safety officers are dispatched to the scene. They assess the situation and determine whether to call the fire department. Not only does this help cut down significantly on false alarms, it also improves our level of response by empowering our on-site officers to rapidly arrive on the scene and assess the situation.
At UNG, we personally train our life safety officers on the campus’ fire alarm system. I provide the basics, including troubleshooting on the fire alarm panels, battery checks, proper charging voltage, resetting after an alarm, etc. The important thing is that we train our officers to be familiar with our fire alarm technology so that they are invested and aware.
Getting Students Involved
With a student population of about 6,500 on our main campus, it’s vital that UNG also teaches students to be proactive about fire safety. That’s why I’ve formed a close alliance with our Residents Life department. At the beginning of every new school year, I hold a training class for our resident assistants and directors. I tell them how important fire safety is on a college campus, and how destructive a fire can be. I make it clear that, when a fire alarm goes off at UNG, they are the most important person in regard to life safety.
Our Residents Life partners have a huge responsibility during a fire alarm. As a building is evacuated, the associates and directors must walk the entire facility, ensure that it is empty and account for every student. After that alarm goes off, they are the first line of defense against fire-related injury or death – and they take that responsibility seriously.
Making an entire university aware of fire safety is no easy task. But by enlightening students, staff, faculty and life safety officers about their role in helping to prevent injuries and death from fire, I’ve helped to empower our entire campus in the effort. Today, UNG is better protected from and better prepared for a fire emergency than ever before.
About the Author
Kim Harris is the Electronic Systems Technician at the University of North Georgia and has more than 30 years of experience working with fire alarm systems.