I was the director at Seton Hall University when a fire took the life of three students and injured more than 50 others. After the Seton Hall Fire in 2000, I realized that the evacuation of the residence halls was one of the most important aspects of fire safety for residence life staff. As simple as it seems to evacuate a building, we learned a lot. The following information covers some of what I learned about evacuation of residence halls, and my recommendations for evacuation plans.
On the morning of the fire, there were fire trucks, paramedics, police and other officials on the scene. What I witnessed was the importance of knowing who will be where on campus in the event of an actual fire emergency. Though our evacuation plans worked, we learned they could be better.
The first step was collaborating with our local fire department. We spent several hours on a few different days walking around all of the halls and discussing where students should go when they exit. We looked at where fire trucks might be parked, where would police cars and personnel be, where would emergency vehicles need to be. All of these helped us plan for where students would gather outside of our halls. We also considered how the time of day or weather would impact what we referred to as the “collection point” for students.
Once the collection points were set, the fire department asked that we identify a point person on the scene for them to speak with. We decided on a neon yellow vest for the RA or HD on the scene. The person wearing the vest would collect any relevant information about the cause of the alarm, and also let the fire department know if there was any information about persons needing assistance in the hall.
The vest was stored in a red “fire bag” kept at the front desk in each hall. The desk clerk/security officer (our desks were staffed 24/7) would bring the fire bag outside when an alarm sounded. The fire bag also contained a current roster for the hall, and a bullhorn to use to make announcements or just for crowd control.
A popular practice on campuses is having RAs check rooms to be sure students are complying with the fire drill. We did this too, but not until the building was “cleared” by the fire department. We would then send the RAs (less a few to remain outside and do crowd control) to key into rooms. If a student was in the room, the RAs would get the student’s name and ID and disciplinary action would be taken. We practiced checking rooms quickly, and even for a hall of 675 beds, we could usually key into all the rooms in no more than 20 minutes. While this can cause some grumbling among students, it was critical to ensuring that all students evacuated. It also made the thought of causing a false alarm much less appealing to would-be pranksters. It is not popular to be known as the person who caused others to stand outside for 20-30 minutes (or more) and we know that false fire alarm activators are always known to at least a few people.
An effective tool to use after each fire alarm is a Fire Alarm “Newsflash.” Post one after every alarm (ideally within hours) telling students about the alarm. Include the date and time of the alarm, the cause, and reminders on proper evacuation procedures. This helps battle the perception of “false alarms.”
As I mentioned, the RA staff had clearly defined roles during an alarm. First and foremost their job was to evacuate the building. RAs should knock or yell loudly as they made their way to the exit. It not the RA job to back track to their floor, or to wait for students to come out.
As the RAs arrive outside, there should be a task assigned to the first person – the vest, and subsequent staff assumed responsibilities for various exits and/or collection points. Once the fire alarm is over it is important for RAs to talk with students about the evacuation. How did it go? Did their residents use the nearest exit – or did they go down the stairs they always come up when they enter the building? How long did it take residents to get out? Did residents dress appropriately for the weather outside?
Staff Training Considerations
An important part of RA training should be some instruction on how campus fire safety equipment works. It is a good idea for RAs to understand sprinklers, smoke and heat detectors and how it all fits together.
RAs can use this basic knowledge to help students understand the safety measures in place and then most importantly this will allow RAs and students to focus on the most important thing they must learn – evacuation.
Because each hall is different, it is important that the RAs learn how their building should be evacuated. It is one thing to talk about it, and to go over the protocol, and yet another to actually do it. In addition to planned fire drills, the RAs should do a walkthrough in their hall to see all the emergency exits, to see where the fire bag was, and to walk outside from the different exits to the collection points to experience how the plan would be carried out. Some campuses have invested in theater “smoke machines” and they will smoke up a hall and have RAs practice an evacuation. While we can hope that most alarms will not involve smoke that is a good thing to practice.
Fire safety training for RAs and professional staff should be regular part of August and winter training. The primary focus is the importance of taking every alarm seriously. Train staff to NOT use the words “false alarm.” If the alarm is activated it happened for a reason. It could be steam from a shower, an aerosol spray in a bathroom, burnt popcorn, a bug in a detector, or it could be a fire. Because it is not possible to know why the alarm has sounded (unless the RA is the one who activated the alarm) it should always be treated as an emergency. Until the RA staff learn to respond in that manner, it will be hard to convince students to respond in that manner.
Submitted by Craig Allen, Director of Residential Services, Texas Christian University