Why the University puts in few calls to local fire companies

10 February 1984
(date estimated)

Why the University puts in few calls to local fire companies

There are roughly 10,000 smoke detectors scattered throughout University buildings. Each sleeping room has one. Every 17 seconds a computer located in the Security Department on the ground floor of Stanhope Hall scans the detectors. If there’s smoke, an intermittent beep first alerts the communications officer on duty; a red light on a large panel marks the
entryway closest to the triggered device; the zone is also spelled out on a computer screen, and a print-out of the data on the screen is produced.

During the first 25 days of January, the Pyrotronics Monitor System sounded five valid alerts. Four of the five involved cooking. On January 7 at 2:16 a m., popping popcorn set off an alarm in 1940 Hall. Burnt toast was the cause in a Graduate College room on January
10; burnt waffles, in the dormitory kitchen of Brown Hall on January 17; and popcorn again, in 1938 Hall on January 20. The sole incident not related to cooking occurred in Blair Hall on January 14 when a wall fixture light burst into flames and tripped a circuit

Thumbing through the reports, Director of Security Jerry Witsil notes that the only heat-producing devices allowed in student rooms are electric blankets and hair dryers, But the point Witsil is making with his reports is that serious fires are rare at Princeton because of its sophisticated detection system and the prompt response of proctors and uniformed security officers to an alarm.

In response to an alert, the communications officer in Stanhope dispatches by radio security personnel to the designated entryway. A flashing light outside the door to the room or suite pinpoints the location.

“In the eight and a half years I’ve had this job,” Witsil says, “there have been about a dozen instances, maybe more, when the alarm system activated, and the proctors and uniformed officers found, in a smoke-filled room, a sleeping or unconscious student who had to be helped or carried out.”

Because of its internal security measures, the University puts in few calls to the community fire companies. “About a handful a year,” says Witsil. The last instance occurred on October 20. Beds had been converted into a loft—one stacked above the other—in a Holder Hall room. Close to the upper bed was a naked light bulb in a wall fixture; apparently, bedclothes resting on it ignited. Proctors entered and used extinguishers so that the blaze was out when the fire department arrived. A mattress had been carried outdoors to the adjoining courtyard. Its smoldering had to be extinguished by the firemen who also hosed down the room. Color pictures attached to the report show a charred wall, a partially collapsed ceiling and a ruined mattress.

Two Decembers ago, Witsil says, someone, evidently playing a prank, launched a bottle rocket through a mail slot in the door to a dormitory room. Some papers caught on fire. The students inside were asleep, and the proctors got them out. There was a lot of smoke, and the fire department was called in to ventilate the room.

Basically, the community fire companies provide a backup to the, University’s strategies for dealing with fires. Witsil recalls meeting with one of the former Princeton chiefs who, after reviewing the University’s system, said that he was glad the companies did not have to respond to all the minor incidents sparked by popcorn, toast and waffles. Security does meet with the chief periodically to go over procedures and to discuss the types of incidents that merit the fire department’s presence.

“ We have a good working relationship with the local fire companies,” Witsil says. “A lot of volunteers, including the new chief, work right here at the University. And students are members too: We know because we make arrangements for them to park cars closer to academic and residential areas than is normally permitted.”

The University’s defense against major fires is its monitoring system. It’s the job of two technicians, Elmer Peratantoni and Edward Quick, to make sure the system works, “24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Witsil says.

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