Alarms mean fines

Jan. 7, 2010, 12:06 a.m.

Unnecessary fire alarm pulls bring a hefty fine, and a few Row houses have felt the effects this year: During fall quarter, several houses, including Sigma Nu and Mars, had alarms pulled, each of which produced a $500 fine from Stanford.

While some alarms are caused by late-night pranksters, the majority of the problems are caused by intoxicated partygoers who activate the alarms. Not only does this cause a fine, but it also breaks up the party as students are forced to evacuate.

“It tends to happen at frat parties or parties at general,” said Natasha Chu ‘10, a kitchen manager at Kairos House.

Fire crews always respond to these alarms, but the fines are not handed out through the office of the University fire marshal. “This is not a policy of the fire marshal; this is a policy of the housing department,” said Marshal Joseph Leung.

Nate Boswell, associate dean of residential education and dean of the Row houses, independent living and Greek life, said the fines are on par with those given for tampering with fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems. He said he was aware of the occurrence of false fire alarm pulls.

“I do not have hard statistics and would hesitate to speculate,” Boswell wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “Anecdotally, alarms go off unnecessarily periodically throughout a given academic year and more often than not are the result of human rather than systems error.”

In order to avoid further problems, houses are taking steps to protect their fire alarms.  While some smaller houses do not have to worry about as many guests, fraternities in particular have had to increase their vigilance of the alarms.

Sigma Nu has instituted a policy of guarding its fire alarms during every party. Each resident chooses a shift, and every alarm is guarded for the duration of the event.

“For the entire night . . . we all have shifts, and we have to leave the party to sit there and guard it for 45 minutes,” said Eric Knudson ’12, a Sigma Nu resident.

The policy has been effective, and Sigma Nu has not had an alarm activation during any of its parties this year, The one alarm the fraternity had to deal with was caused instead by a late-night prank. Early in the morning, someone broke into their house and pulled the alarm.

“Personally I think it’s great when Stanford gets into its school spirit with these healthy rivalries — I love that,” Knudson said. “But breaking into a house and pulling an alarm and making fire fighters come here at two o’clock in the morning and making us pay all this money — it’s not in anybody’s interests.”

The story at Mars is similar, with its first fine related to a third-floor alarm that was pulled during an all-campus party in the early morning hours. Its second alarm activation was a break-in through the rear kitchen door.

“A resident in Columbae saw what happened,” said Matt Sprague ’10, financial manager for Mars. “He saw possibly two people dressed in black walk up to the back door, throw it open, pull it and sprint away.”

The resident reported seeing a similar event the night of the Sigma Nu fire alarm activation. Staff members at Mars have taken steps to permanently lock the rear door, as well as enforce stricter policies on the locking of exterior doors and windows.

Particularly at Mars, some were disappointed that there was not a further investigation into the pranks in order to find the person responsible. Some had hoped that fingerprints could be taken to find the culprit and to discover the reason why the alarms were being activated.

“I don’t know what really possesses people to pull it — it’s just really shallow, short reasons . . . [It’s] a brief amount of fun and screws people over in the long run,” said David Geeter II ’11, a Mars resident.

Although the total of $1,000 in fines only accounts for roughly two percent of the Mars budget, the alarm incidents mean the house is spending money that was originally budgeted for other purposes.

Boswell said a review process is in place to help houses whose alarms are pulled, despite those houses’ own prevention efforts.

“The University takes all alarms, legitimate or not, very seriously,” Boswell said. “By default, houses such as Sigma Nu are responsible for regulating access to their building, and if an alarm is pulled, regardless of who pulls it, the house is generally fined.

“If alarms are repeatedly pulled and a culprit cannot be identified or the house has been doing what it is supposed to — keeping doors and windows locked, monitoring guests, etc. — and someone broke in, then the house has an opportunity to file a police report and refute the fine through Student Housing.”

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