Problematic Exhaust Fan Sets Off Lawry Fire Alarm 10 Times

The fire alarm in Pomona College’s Lawry Court has gone off improperly more than 10 times this fall, including three times between 8 and 10 a.m. Monday, due to problems with the exhaust fan in suite A3.

Assistant Director of Maintenance Operations Judy Brown said the problem has now been resolved.

According to Brown, the alarms in the restroom of the Lawry A3 suite have sounded accidentally because of running showers that have caused the restroom to fill with steam.

When this happened the first few times, Campus Safety officers determined that the building’s fan and alarm systems appeared to be operational. However, after the third time the alarm went off, the Maintenance Department decided to change out the batteries for the towers’ three “time clocks,” which control when the exhaust fans in the Lawry bathrooms turn on and off.

This seemed to solve the problem for several weeks. However, last week, two false alarms in Lawry were determined to be a result of the same exhaust fan problems, prompting the Office of Facilities and Campus Services to replace all the time clocks in the three towers, Brown said. She added that since facilities staff had to place a special order for the time clocks, maintenance staff set the exhaust fans to bypass the clocks in the meantime.

However, the fire alarm went off three times in Lawry’s A and B Towers Monday morning. When maintenance staff investigated the problem, they found that a wire on the roof had become disconnected from the power source to the exhausters, causing the exhausters to stop running Monday morning.

Following the three false alarms Monday, maintenance repaired the broken wire and installed the new time clocks, which happened to arrive on Monday. Presumably, this will fix the problem, Brown said.

However, many students remain skeptical about whether the problem is truly resolved, especially since facilities had said it was resolved last week.

“I absolutely don’t trust that they have fixed it,” said Nate Pertsch PO ’11, a resident of the B2 suite in Lawry. “I’ve heard this alarm go off way too many times. If they haven’t been able to fix it before, how can I trust that they’ve fixed it now?”

Dean of Campus Life Ric Townes said he only heard about the problem after the alarms went off twice last week and the Lawry Residence Hall staff communicated the issue to him directly. However, Lawry A1 resident Winona Youngblood PO ’12 said multiple students who live Lawry, particularly in the A tower, had e-mailed Townes and contacted Campus Safety earlier this semester regarding the persisting problem. She said it is “a big problem” that the Office of Campus Life (OCL) was not aware of it until last week.

“It was really frustrating because everybody was contacting the administration about it and it seemed like nothing was done for a long time,” Youngblood said. “I’d be embarrassed if I was in the administration and I didn’t know about the problem, because the alarm has been going off for three to four weeks steady now at various intervals.”

Townes said that when the problem started to become a recurring issue, students were calling Campus Safety about it instead of speaking to OCL directly, so OCL was not aware of the problem.

“We’re not a big place, but as small as we may be, sometimes things function like you’re at a big place,” Townes said. “So when an individual calls something in, we don’t actually necessarily know, and so we’re not able to follow up as well until it becomes a big problem.”

According to Elaine Smith PO ’12, a resident of A3, the suite whose fan system seemed to be the cause of the issue, maintenance staff had made an effort to fix the problem throughout the semester, though OCL might not have been aware of the issue.

“I had thought the problem was fixed,” Smith said. “I had seen maintenance come in. I had seen that something was being fixed, so I assumed something wouldn’t happen again. I think there has been a response to it, but whatever measures were taken were not enough.”

Despite the high number of false alarms this semester, Pomona has not incurred any costs because fire trucks were never dispatched to campus. According to Brown, when a fire alarm sounds, Campus Safety’s protocol is to dispatch officers immediately to the location. It is the officers’ job to assess the scene and determine whether to call the Fire Department.

The problem has been persistent enough that many students refrain from evacuating when the alarm goes off. Although Townes said he hopes students aren’t letting down their guard and are still making sure to evacuate properly, when the alarm went off for the first time Monday morning few students evacuated and none went to the proper evacuation site next to Walker Beach.

Even before last week, many students had stopped taking the alarms seriously. Pertsch said that during recent false alarms, he has spent five to 10 minutes getting ready before evacuating. Other students have stopped evacuating entirely.

“I didn’t even bother to leave my room,” said Lawry resident Andrea Gottstein PO ’11 about the second alarm she was present for. “I just lay in bed and waited until they shut it off because I figured that it was probably just a false alarm. I think it may be a problem if there ever happens to be a fire in Lawry.”

Given how important the fire alarm system is to student safety, Pertsch said, it is problematic that the administration did not make more efforts to fix the issue until now.

“The fire alarms are a critical system to protecting the student body, and it disrespects the emergency system when there are so many false alarms,” Pertsch said. “We don’t want these false alarms to desensitize the student body from potential emergencies.”

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