Frequent fire alarms leave Parkland-goers curious about the cause

Photo provided by Prospectus News

Photo provided by Prospectus News

Greg Gancarz

Staff Writer

Five fire alarms in about as many months might lead some to falsely believe there is a serial arsonist on the loose, but in reality, the alarms are nothing but a series of unfortunate coincidences.

The recent false alarms have been caused by a combination of technical hiccups, due to the recent installation of a new fire alert system and triggers that speak to the improved sensitivity of the new system. But, Parkland Chief of Police William Colbrook said, “there’s no theme” overall to the triggers.

Students and staff began noticing the alarms early in the 2017 spring semester. The alarms have continued to occur over the past several months.

Most students could only guess as to what the cause was. Student Jim Tackett assumed they were all “poorly timed drills” to ensure the recently installed system was without any bugs, while student Liz Rund and her friends heard several were related to chemistry lab mishaps. In reality, the triggers were due to a variety of reasons.

“A few were directly related to operational issues with the system itself, which we corrected with the system supplier and the installation contractor,” said James Bustard, director of the physical plant at Parkland, who is largely in charge of the fire alert system.

But, others were caused by stimuli which the fire detectors interpreted as legitimate fire hazards. This included smoke from burning popcorn in the college center, and what campus police and Bustard believe was someone likely smoking in one of the second floor bathrooms.

“We found no smoking materials,” Colbrook said. “We found no evidence of smoking, but there was no other indication of why that head would have gone off and it wasn’t a faulty head.”

A few of the other alarm trips demonstrate just how powerful the new system can be when it comes to detecting dangers.

“[One alarm] was caused by contractors working in an enclosed area of the building,” Bustard said of the most recent fire alarm. “They created a substantial amount of dust in the room, which set off the alarm.”

The alarms are sensitive to more than just smoke so this dust triggered it.

“The detector can’t decipher whether it’s dust or whether it’s smoke,” says Colbrook, “and when dust came across the head, it said ‘Hey, there’s something we need to alert you guys to.’”

Simple human error was a cause part of the time as well. At least one of the alarms was caused by contractors during installation and tuning of the new system.

“Sometimes they would want to make a minor correction and they didn’t think they really needed to take the system offline or notify us to take the system offline,” Colbrook said. “Humans make mistakes.”

An after-hours alarm was believed to have been set off by a heavy thunderstorm as well, adding mother nature to the list of culprits. The storm’s strong electrical surge was thought to be powerful enough to trip the alarm system.

According to Colbrook, none of the recent alarms, nor any of the fire alarms since he has been at Parkland, have been caused by a student pulling an alarm mischievously or with malicious intent.

The false alarm frequency is expected to decrease.

“We have taken some precautionary steps to hopefully eliminate the false alarms caused by contractors or malfunctions,” Bustard said.

Colbrook says that further measures will soon be put into place to help deter smoking on campus, in alignment with recent changes in Illinois law. This will likely translate into fewer alarms triggered by smoking. Although students are informed that smoking on campus is forbidden, in accordance with state law, currently that’s about as far as measures against it go.

“I’ll be in charge of a committee this summer to go to the next level,” Colbrook said, “to figure out what the enforcement side is going to look like at Parkland, because right now, we don’t really have an enforcement side, but it’s coming.”

Colbrook says that hopefully policies will be able to be implemented by the beginning of next year’s spring semester.

“We have to come up with an enforcement component because that’s what Illinois law says,” Colbrook said.

The school will continue its current efforts to educate people as well.

“We’re not going to stop educating people,” Colbrook said. “We would rather people know about a non-smoking policy here on campus and just voluntarily comply with the law, as opposed to any enforcement.”

Further anti-smoking measures combined with further familiarity with the system by contractors should ensure that most false alarms become a thing of the past, although the new system will still alert the school to any legitimate possible threats, many of which caused the recent alarms.

Whatever the reasons, students are glad to hear the alarms will be less frequent at Parkland. According to Tackett, the alarms could be “extremely disruptive” to classes, and caused both teachers and students to have to speed through important material to make up for the lost time.

For Rund, the alarms often meant missing classes while some of her friends simply left for the day after the alarms went off. According to her, the only real joy “came from those escaping an exam.” She says that knowing the alarms will be less frequent is “a big relief.”

In the end, many of the alarm trips proved to be something of a testament to the new system’s efficiency.

“The new system is a substantial improvement over the old system it replaced,” Bustard said, “there are many more sensors around campus, along with substantially more warning lights and horns. The new system also allows Campus Public Safety and the Champaign Fire Department to pinpoint the exact sensor or pull station that triggers an alarm.”

This significantly improves the response time and greatly increases their ability to know if the alarm is indeed a fire or not.