My purpose here is to share some concerns about the fire alarm system that arose during my experience living at the Munger Graduate Residences at University of Michigan. I hope that sharing perspective from a previous Munger project can help inform the Munger dorm project at UCSB as it moves ahead. I have forwarded these concerns to faculty at UCSB, residential services at the University of Michigan, and fire marshals from both jurisdictions.

Incessant fire alarms were a severe nuisance during my time at the Munger Graduate Residences. To my understanding, the unusually high frequency of fire alarms resulted from the large population of the densely-packed residence hall and the ability of minor smoke or steam (i.e., from small cooking mishaps) to activate alarms across large numbers of suites. Fire alarms were so frequent that the residence hall put up Smokey Bear themed posters beseeching residents to be more careful with their cooking. Further, fire alarms were triggered particularly incessantly by facility services during a wildly egregious three week testing period during the heart of lockdown (and through finals week).

🔗 Livability Concerns

At one point the fire alarms went off when my partner was taking a virtual final exam from his room. I ran in there and remember seeing him looking like he was about to burst into tears, still taking this exam. I ended up grabbing our noise canceling headphones and putting them on him while he was still working and then holding a pillow over the alarm fixture in his room for a good 15 minutes. This made the situation somewhat bearable for him as he continued with his exam (not physically painful to the ears, at least).

Living at Munger, I would often have to move my zoom meetings into our bathroom during fire alarm rings. There wasn’t a direct fire alarm fixture in there so it was a little quieter (especially with noise canceling headphones). I’d be on zoom meetings sitting on our shower mat and would occasionally unmute myself to shout whatever input I had for the meeting over the fire alarms then immediately mute myself. I timed it and spent upwards of forty minutes like this at one point during one of the longer building rings.

🔗 Safety Concerns

Unfortunately, these frequent fire alarms not only caused a profound negative impact on livability, but also a threat to resident safety by means of desensitization.

By the end of my stay at Munger, I noticed that almost nobody in my suite actually evacuated when fire alarms rang. Instead, we would retreat to the quietest place we could find within the suite (our individual bedrooms and bathrooms) and wait the alarms out. This response to fire alarms is an almost inevitable outcome when false alarms become a regular occurrence. However, failing to evacuate promptly would be extremely dangerous during an actual fire. The frequency of frivolous alarms sets the stage for a potentially tragic outcome.

🔗 Suggestions

With a larger resident population packed in even more tightly, I fear that nuisance fire alarms could be an even more pervasive problem at the upcoming UCSB Munger project.

I have several suggestions on the issue based on my lived experience as a resident in a Munger projects. I hope that proper attention can ensure a more livable and safe experience at UCSB (and perhaps at U of M, too). This list of suggestions is by no means comprehensive, but should hopefully provide a starting point for a conversation to help reduce the frequency and desensitizing effect of frivolous fire alarm rings.

🔗 Reducing the Frequency of Frivolous Fire Alarms

  1. Don’t clown around with the fire alarm system.

During three weeks of spring 2020,  University of Michigan facilities staff activated fire alarms throughout the building multiple times a day and left them on for upwards of 30 minutes at a time. This was done without any announcement of the times of day that alarms would be triggered or the number of times alarms would be triggered each day.

During this time, facilities had a crew of workers going through the living areas to check that the fire alarms were achieving high enough decibel output.

Exposing residents to hours of unnecessary (facilities only actually measured volume once in our living area) and profound disruption for weeks on end is clearly unacceptable (bordering on inhumane) conduct. However, more insidiously, it directly promotes (and, to an extent, condones) a culture of fire alarm disregard among residents. This is especially the case when detailed fire alarm testing schedules are not announced.

Any testing required should be conducted within a short (ideally, 24 hour) window with a detailed pre-announced schedule. Prefer a weekend day when students have fewer work responsibilities to conduct from home.

If more personnel or equipment are needed to accomplish testing within 24 hours, then make necessary investments.

  1. Provide high-power kitchen ventilation, especially full range hoods. Supply freestanding fans or a ventilation system that can be activated to air out an entire kitchen.

In the Munger kitchens, we were only provided with rather ineffective small fans built into the bottom of the microwave ovens to ventilate our cooktops.

Cooking surfaces were not located near to windows, making venting out any smoky air difficult. Further limiting ventilation, only small sections of main living area windows could be opened.

  1. Make triggers for full-building or full-floor rings more conservative.

It may appear more safe to err on the side of sensitivity, but alarms don’t promote safety when a sizable portion of the resident population begins systematically ignoring them. 

Hypersensitive fire alarm wiring may very well be mandated by building code due to the population density of dormitory floor plans. Hire lawyers and consultants to study the issue and then fix the codes or obtain an exemption if necessary. Large residential blocks with single occupancy units don’t trigger the entire building when someone burns their toast.

  1. Install higher-sensitivity local-ring-only alarms to warn residents before a whole-floor or whole-building ring is activated.

This will allow students to take corrective action (particularly in the kitchen) before a large-scale alarm is triggered.

  1. Have a plan to manage students smoking indoors, especially in their own rooms.

Without a window, students will not be able to ventilate their personal living area as effectively as in other living situations. Consider providing students with handheld air filters (e.g, “smoke buddy”) to reduce the rate that inevitable recreational smoking and vaping translates to frivolous fire alarms.

  1. Track fire alarms.

If you do not track and report the frequency and causes of fire alarms, you cannot effectively manage the issue.

🔗 Promoting Fire Alarm Compliance

If fire alarm frequency cannot be adequately reduced, then additional measures may be necessary to maintain fire alarm compliance.

  1. Ensure that fire alarm volume is truly unbearable in all spaces.

Including restrooms, closets, and stairwells, while wearing noise canceling headphones. If fire alarms cannot be ignored, they won’t be.

Consider livability concerns before implementing any such measure.

  1. Provide a comfortable, safe location to evacuate to.

Residents are more likely to choose to not evacuate if it involves spending a long period in a potentially dark, wet, and/or cold outdoor environment. Provide a covered, well-lit evacuation location that is protected from wind gusts.

  1. Instruct RA’s or housing staff to check suites and rooms during fire alarms.

Such evacuation checks have occurred at all dormitories I have resided in, except Munger.

  1. Track fire alarm compliance.

I.e., count the number of residents that evacuate during fire alarms. If you do not track and report compliance, you cannot effectively manage the issue.

🔗 Conclusion

Thank you for your time and attention to the impact of frivolous fire alarms on resident safety and well-being within Munger housing projects. I very much hope that with proper measures some issues encountered at U of M can be avoided at UCSB.

🔗 Let’s Chat

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, and comments. Jump on to the twitter thread below.