Oldenborg Fire Raises Emergency Preparedness Questions

A gaggle of grumpy and confused students stumbled out of the Oldenborg Center on the night of April 8 as the building fire alarm blared. Some students did not emerge from the building for over 15 minutes, until the alarm finally drew them outside.

The response to the Oldenborg fire has prompted some students and administrators to raise questions about the effectiveness of Pomona College’s emergency procedures.

“It was all pretty scattered,” Oldenborg resident Larkin Corrigan PO ’14 said. “This was a small fire, so with no imminent danger I wasn’t stressed out by the emergency response, but there didn’t seem to be anyone in charge and even Campus Security upon arrival was a bit confused.”

As word spread that it was a dumpster fire, the mass of students that had assembled in front of the building soon rushed over to join their compatriots behind the building to observe the flames. The fire was put out when a fire truck arrived and hosed the dumpster.

Rumors circulated that the fire was the work of an arsonist. Dean of Student Life Ric Townes, however, attributed the fire to an accident. 

“It has been determined that the placement of a hot Sterno can next to the dumpster caused the fire,” Townes said.

Townes also said that the fires this semester at Harvey Mudd and Frary Dining Hall did not involve arson and were caused by hot coals and a gas leak, respectively.

“Safety is our top priority,” Townes said. “We have an emergency preparedness vision that we are still developing that integrates the Claremont Police, Campus Safety and leaders on site.”

Townes said that he has worked with Campus Safety and other campus administrators this year to develop improved emergency procedures relating in particular to earthquakes and violence, including the creation of an earthquake emergency preparedness task force of students, faculty and administrators.

Prompted by a fire alarm that went off at Alexander Hall and a hectic evacuation that followed, administrators are “reviewing emergency fire policies and procedures around academic and administrative buildings,” Townes said. 

Following the Oldenborg fire, an April 19 emergency preparedness meeting led to the conclusion that fire procedure in residential buildings also needed increased consideration, Townes said.

“We are appreciative that students brought the situation to our attention,” Townes said. “We can dissect the event and see where we have to shore up any of our protocol for handling that situation.” 

Townes said that the college is attempting to work with the framework for emergencies that exist on a federal and state level.

“The idea behind this is that if a state agency has to talk to a local agency, they can understand the framework and communicate with each other,” he said. 

Townes said that the ideal model of emergency preparedness would involve reliable oversight at the site of any emergency.

“There should be an incident commander at the site who is in charge until a higher ranking incident commander shows up and the chain of command can be passed that way, so there is always someone in charge,” Townes said.

This system was not in place at the Oldenborg fire.

“It was definitely unclear where we were supposed to go upon exiting the building and unclear when we were actually allowed back in, so a lot of people just reentered the building,” Nathan Yale PO ’14 said. “Some of them were then evacuated again.”

Townes said that although the initial report of the event he was given did not indicate any problems, upon reexamination it became apparent that no one had been in charge. The dean-on-call was contacted but did not go to the scene.

“We are going to review our dean-on-call procedures,” Townes said. “We want someone to be there and be able to raise their hand to indicate that they are the incident commander. At first, that should be the RA-on-call but it does not appear that they were contacted.”  

Garrick Monaghan PO ‘14 and Mark Irwin PZ ‘14 evacuated toward the back of Oldenborg, where they witnessed the fire in the dumpster.

“We were all trying to figure out what had happened,” Monaghan said. “We all stood and looked at the fire for a few minutes, and after no Campus Security or anyone else showed up, Mark and I went in search of some fire extinguishers, as we figured the fire should probably be put out.”

Monaghan and Irwin went back into Oldenborg and returned with a fire extinguisher a few minutes later.

“When we got back, a few members of Campus Safety had arrived and were looking around with their flashlights, but no one was doing anything to put out the fire,” Monaghan said. “We gave them our fire extinguisher and they used it on the dumpster.”

The fire extinguisher subdued the fire but did not fully put it out. After a few more minutes, another Campus Security member returned with more fire extinguishers, which still could not stifle the fire.

One student photographer was able to crouch fairly close to the dumpster taking photos before having to move as a fire truck pulled in behind her.

“I was a little confused about why no RAs or anyone of authority was around,” Monahan said. “I don’t think I would point the finger at anyone, especially because the building has automated defenses, so that is reassuring. But still, if the fire was bigger…” 

Townes also said that he hopes to address the propping of the main door to Oldenborg for hours following the fire. One student reported that the door was intentionally propped open, most likely to ventilate the building, when she returned to Oldenborg around 3:30 a.m. 

“The door should not be propped open unless someone is standing there,” Townes said. “We are looking into it, because as of now we do not know who did it, or who told them to do it.” 

Townes said that the administration and Campus Security were ready to address the issues.

“Now that we have been made aware of the gaps, we can clearly identify and fill them,” he said. 

“All fires are treated seriously and the safety of our campus community is always our highest priority,” said Director of Campus Safety Shahram Ariane in an e-mail to TSL.

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