Grumbling students forced out of their residence halls during a fire drill have become a common fixture of NYU culture. Fire drills are, to put it lightly, annoying and inconvenient. But the hostility directed at certain aspects of fire drills — such as the dreaded wait period in the block-long queue post-evacuation — are bullets misfired. The true issue lies in the frequency at which unannounced drills occur, which inadvertently increase the severity of fire accidents.
Fires are extremely serious and deadly; it’s imperative that students evacuate quickly if an alarm sounds. The fact that you cannot navigate through a residence hall without seeing at least one fire safety poster along the way is a testament to the gravity of the subject. NYU’s 2016 Fire Safety Log accounts for 15 incidents of fire accidents across all residence halls for that year. The causes of those incidents vary from candles to criminal mischiefs. Thus, the unpredictability of a fire accident cannot be understated.
Fire drills, then, seem like the natural prelude to safety. As a first-year, I’ve been a part of one official fire drill or evacuation. Based on my firsthand experience, I can say that the swiftness of an occupant’s evacuation is dependent only upon the pace people exit down the emergency stairs. But I’ve also reluctantly sat through two instances of fire alarms sounding off, as well as participated in a mistimed drill which resulted in only my floor residents evacuating.
During each drill, I would peep out of my door to judge the credibility of the fire alarm based on whether my floormates were preparing to evacuate. Each time, I would see my floormates doing the same. We were creating an impromptu meeting, deciding how to answer the fundamental question during fire drill season — “To evacuate or not to evacuate?”
This confusion of whether to take a fire alarm seriously or not is, in fact, not arbitrary at all. It is a result of a phenomenon known as semantic satiation. The phrase attributes the loss of a word’s meaning on its constant repetition due to fatigue of brain cells. Basically, something loses significance if you do it over and over again — especially in a short period of time.
The same goes for fire drills. NYU’s official fire drill procedures state that the law mandates all residence halls to conduct drills “at least three times each year, one of which required drills shall be held between September first and December first of each such year.” This period also marks the time for fire alarm checks and random alarm tests.
Though one might argue that the unpredictable occurrence of accidents maintains a fire alarm’s panic-inducing abilities, this certainly isn’t the case. Frequent fire alarms damage their very alarming effect. Such frequency may incline residents to decide to sit through an alarm or hesitate to evacuate. Seven out of the 15 incidents recorded in the aforementioned Fire Safety Log occurred in September and October — the peak season for fire drills. The prospect of residents dismissing genuine alarms as interruptive drills or even hesitating to evacuate during potentially critical fire accidents is dangerous.
Fire drills should, therefore, be announced. The doubt over the credibility of fire alarms created by unannounced fire drills considered tests is too risky. To discipline residents into unquestioned cooperation during drills is a daunting and improbable task. It seems more viable to trust the residents to use their fire safety education in moments of genuine alarm.
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A version of this appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 9 print edition.
Email Krishang Nadgauda at [email protected].