Throughout the past couple of months, Berkeley High School (BHS) classes have been interrupted almost weekly. Sprinkled between Spirit Week, teacher strikes, and Thanksgiving, have been a steady stream of fire alarms. In the last two months, BHS students and teachers have experienced six separate fire evacuations, including two this week: one on December 16 and one on December 18. Three of the fire alarms were false alarms: two were set off by vaping, and one occurred after routine maintenance on the fire alarm system. The only merited fire alarm occurred on Rally Day and was caused by smoking equipment in the C Building, according to Kiernan Rok, dean of students at BHS.
However, BHS’s quick succession of fire evacuations has not damaged the schools’ relationship with the Berkeley Fire Department, despite concerns. Erin Schweng, principal of BHS, said, “it’s frustrating for them to have to drop everything and come here when it’s not a true emergency,” even though firefighters are always “professional” and “helpful” when they visit the school and interact with the administration. Dori Tieu, a fire prevention inspector and investigator with the Berkeley Fire Department, assures that “the relationship between the fire department and BHS has not changed.”
The work done by the fire department is paid for using taxpayer dollars, said Schweng. This means that every false alarm wastes taxpayer dollars.
When the fire alarm goes off at BHS, students know to evacuate into their designated outdoor area. However, the mechanism of the fire alarm is hidden from students. According to Tieu, “when a smoke detector senses smoke or a manual pull station is pulled, the fire alarm system will relay a message to a central monitoring station.” At the monitoring station, a dispatcher is notified to send a fire truck and a fire engine to BHS. Tieu said, “depending on the location of the fire alarm, we will respond to the closest entrance,” which usually means the MLK entrance or the A-gate. Once members of the fire department have arrived, administrators and firefighters work together to locate the area of the alarm and check it out. After the fire department puts out the fire or ventilates the area, the fire department resets the alarms system, sometimes with help from an alarm technician contractor. In the event of a true fire, Tieu said, “Our dispatchers would send a full assignment to BHS. A full assignment includes four fire engines, one fire truck, one ambulance, and one battalion chief.”
Unlike private schools, BHS is not charged a dollar amount for alarms and visits from the fire department. According to Schweng, who called the fire department last week, the fire department doesn’t charge BHS directly. Instead, the work done by the fire department is paid for using taxpayer dollars, said Schweng. This means that every false alarm wastes taxpayer dollars.
Fortunately, the fire department and the school can both agree on the reason for the increase in false alarms. Tieu believes the small increase in fire alarms this year has “mostly been due to smoking in the bathroom.” The fire department has called false alarms due to vaping “unwanted alarms” because they can be easily avoided. Tieu insists that “it is the administrators’ responsibility to inform the students not to smoke inside buildings and be vigilant about reducing unwanted alarms.” Unwanted alarms from vaping differ from malicious alarms, where someone intentionally sounds the alarm, in that malicious alarms are punished with fines and possibly jail time, while unwanted alarms are not.
In order to avoid these unwanted alarms, which can be disruptive despite being unintentional, Schweng’s response has been to “shut down the bathrooms in the A-building because the nuisance of dealing with vaping happening there was too much.” She said, “We will evaluate when and if to reopen them.”
While there has not been any lasting damage caused by alarms, they still bring consequences. “The alarms, both the sounds and strobe lights, are really disturbing for some of our most vulnerable students,” said Schweng.
Rok agreed with Schweng and added that he believes that “the greatest cost associated with a fire evacuation is the loss of learning time for the entire school.”