Disconnected alarms trigger old-fashioned evacuation during fire

Mike Wereschagin

For the first time in months, Jackson Hall’s fire alarms were switched off Tuesday.
As luck would have it, Tuesday was the first time in years the alarms were needed.
Owre Hall, connected to the east side of Jackson Hall, caught fire at 1:10 p.m. Firefighters were able to keep the blaze from spreading to Jackson Hall and completely extinguished it within an hour.
Judson Freed, a University spokesperson, said the alarms were only going to be down for a few hours.
“It seems Murphy’s Law was working overtime,” Freed said. “Fortunately, the fire wasn’t in Jackson Hall.”
Eric Kruse, vice president of University Services, said the alarms in Jackson Hall were turned off because they were being reconnected to the University’s alarm system.
Normally, all fire alarms are on a system connected to the University’s Facilities Management department. When an alarm is triggered, Facilities Management is immediately alerted, he said.
But during Jackson Hall’s recently completed renovation, alarms were monitored by the construction company working on the building and were disconnected Tuesday to wire them back into the University’s system, Kruse said.
Students in Jackson Hall early Tuesday afternoon said they were concerned by the lack of warning about the fire next door.
Amy Wagner, a senior in mortuary science, was in a Jackson Hall classroom when the fire broke out.
Wagner said the class was alerted to the danger when a student sitting by a window told them he smelled smoke.
“The teacher opened the blinds and saw smoke in the alleyway behind the building,” Wagner said. “He told us to pack up and exit the building.”
As she was leaving the building, Wagner said she saw someone trying to pull the fire alarm, but it didn’t go off.
Freed said Emergency Management decided to evacuate Jackson Hall at 1:15 p.m.
“We had people go into the building and pull the alarms, but nothing happened,” Freed said. “Then we realized we would physically have to evacuate the building.”
Facilities Management was alerted and immediately reconnected the alarm system, Freed said. The alarm went off at about 1:25 p.m., 15 minutes after the fire started.
Freed said the system is now back on and reconnected to the University’s system.
But the fire itself is still under investigation.
“Right now we’re looking into both the cause of the fire and the damage,” said Kruse. “We know there is water damage to Jackson Hall, but we’re not sure how severe it is.”
Mold growth in the walls caused by this damage could force the University to replace some walls, Kruse said.
All hazardous materials were removed from Owre Hall before demolition began, so there is no fear of airborne toxins, he added.
Three accidents have occurred at University construction sites in the past several months. However, since the scope of the renovations is so vast, Kruse said the University’s safety record is “very decent.
“Every precaution has been taken, but unforeseen conditions do occur,” he said. “Tuesday is an example of that.”

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3226.