Category Archives: Kim Harris

All In: Getting Stakeholder Buy-in on Fire Safety is a Challenge and a Necessity

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.

Legitimate Danger
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.

All In
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.

Campus-wide Pride: Making University Fire Safety a Priority

For facility managers and technicians at college campuses across the U.S., my story might be somewhat familiar. I came to the University of North Georgia nine years ago and took on a daunting task: Fix the campus’ broken fire safety protocol, standardize its numerous devices and systems, and do away with its long-standing tradition of twice-weekly (or more) false alarms. The safety of our students, faculty and staff depended on it.

Much like other higher education campuses, the University of North Georgia had, over the years, adopted a hodgepodge of various fire alarm systems – mostly, just stand-alone, local systems in each building that used proprietary devices. The campus had never undergone NFPA 72 inspections, so every system was in various stages of non-compliance. And not surprisingly, we had ongoing problems with faulty and unreliable technology.

We had developed a nasty reputation for frequent false alarms, and with good reason: The local fire department was called to campus for a false alarm two to three times a week. Eventually, Lumpkin County, where the campus is located, passed a false alarm ordinance. By that point, our students were so desensitized to false fire alarms that some would remain in the building when an alarm sounded. Of course, there’s no way to tell a false alarm from a legitimate one, and these students were endangering themselves every time they chose to stay put.

Troubled by the state of fire safety at UNG, I made it my personal mission to standardize all devices under one non-proprietary brand – and to do away with false alarms altogether.

A Nine-Year Challenge
My first step in bring UNG’s fire system up-to-date was to get administration buy-in. Many stakeholders simply didn’t realize the importance of fire safety – not to mention how much money the school was wasting in false alarm fees and proprietary system upkeep.

In the end, the opportunity to ensure student safety and save money captured everyone’s attention. We’re located about 70 miles north of Atlanta, and we were being charged a fortune in system maintenance and troubleshooting fees. With the existing proprietary systems, though, we were locked in – we couldn’t have used another technician if we wanted to.

That’s why early in my career at UNG I pledged to transition to a 100 percent Fire-Lite solution on campus. I had worked with Fire-Lite systems before, and I knew that UNG needed fire alarm technology that was easy to use, easy to maintain and, more importantly, integrated across the entire campus.

 A Campus-wide Solution
I started working with non-proprietary systems in the late 1980s, so I know first-hand how reliable and user-friendly certain manufacturers’ systems can be. Now that UNG is 100 percent non-proprietary, we’ve decreased false alarms by 99.9 percent. And on top of that, our maintenance and service calls are much easier and faster now.

Our campus officers are trained on the non-proprietary systems, so they can reset any panel on campus. If we need parts or service, we can call any certified fire alarm installer: no more exorbitant travel fees from proprietary techs in Atlanta.

For example, recently one of our dorms was struck by lightning during a storm. Since I have every panel downloaded on my laptop, I was able to have the building back up within about three hours. With other systems, it might have been down for days at a time – which is simply unacceptable in the college campus environment.

We also are one of the only campuses in the university system with our own central station. We monitor all of our own fire systems on campus; when an alarm sounds, the building is evacuated and public safety officers are dispatched to assess the situation. Then, they decide whether to call the fire department. Because the contact ID tells operators the exact location of the situation, officers are able to respond quickly and effectively. And our campus is better protected than ever before.

Although not every campus can establish its own central station, in our case doing our own monitoring works well and has saved us money in the long run. For most campuses, though, a great first step would be to assess your fire alarm systems and consider how you might be able to streamline them over time. Look into highly reliable, easy-to-use and non-proprietary solutions, which will be easier and less expensive to maintain. And all the while, keep in mind the end goal: to protect students, faculty and staff through a comprehensive fire safety protocol.

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.

For more information on the products and services offered by Fire-Lite Alarms visit: www.firelite.com