It was late Saturday night in the George Washington University dormitory when the ear-splitting wail of the fire alarm forced students to leave the building. Despite a few grumbles about going out into the cold, nearly all the students evacuated for what many felt sure was a false alarm. Shivering outside while waiting for the fire department to confirm that there was no fire, one student vowed that next time he was going to remain inside until he "sees smoke."
The next time the alarm went off that night, some students refused to leave the dormitory. As the third false alarm of the night shattered the early morning hours, a sizeable group of students stayed inside.
"These kids don't realize what they're doing or they would't pull the alarms," said Lt. Pete Hammer of the D.C. Fire Department. "They have no idea of the exposure they're leaving open for someone to die."
In addition to tying up trucks and firefighters in case of a real fire, false alarms create skepticism among students. Such skepticism may have led to the deaths of seven students who perished in a dormitory fire last December at Province College in Rhode Island. A student said later that there had been a rash of false alarms at the school, which might have kept some dorm residents from leaving in time.
About 10 false alarms were turned in from Thurston Hall during the last semester, which ended in late December.
In response to the threat, Thurston's dorm council sent representatives to all 290 dormitory rooms to explain the dangers of false alarms. Then in late February another false alarm roused students at 3 a.m.
"There are similar problems in every college across the country," said Charles Fey, of Catholic University's housing office.
Catholic University reports considerably fewer false alarms than GW, an average of "one or two a semester," said Bill Nork, director of security. He said, however, that the problem is "serious enough so that when we have our fire alarms tests, the students don't respond fast enough."
While all the university dormitories have internal alarms, at Georgetown and George Washington universities, security forces automatically call the D. C. Fire Department at the sound of the bells. With a relatively small oncampus population, Catholic University can check out the alarm first.
With more than 1,000 residents, GW's Thurston Hall is one of the largest college dorms in the East, making the screening of fire alarms an ill-affordable luxury.
"If there is any doubt, it's not worth the delay checking it out," said John Bohen, a George Washington housing official.
Charles Lamm, head of protective services for Georgetown University, which like GW is in a heavily populated area of Northwest, agrees with Bohen that the fire department should be called when an alarm sounds. He termed false alarms "a serious problems" at Georgetown because of their potential danger.
Firefighters answer all alarms as if they are real.
"We respond to the alarms with the same diligence, but we expect there won't be anything at the scene," said one member of Engine Company 23, located three blocks from Thurston Halls.
Calls from universities and other high-density areas are responded to with a "full box alarm complement." This means that four engine companies, two truck companies, a rescue squad and a battalion fire chief go out on the call, according to Chief Norman Richardson of the fire department's planning and research division.
As a result of the number of units that must respond to an alarm at GW, the territory that must be covered by back-up units comprises the area of Northwest between roughly U Street and the Potomac River bounded by 13th Street and Wisconsin Avenue up to Calvert Street.
Fire officials said that a blaze gains the most headway during the first few minutes, which could be lost at a real fire if the closest units are responding to a false alarm.
One fireman from Engine Co. 23 expressed bitterness about the behaviour of a small group of students during a false alarm.
"Some of them seem to think the whole thing is a joke," he said. "At four o'clock in the morning with a temperature of 15 degrees outside, they're laughing, cheering and clapping like it was a joke."
"I have not had any problems with false alarms at all," said Amercian University's residential life director Phil Henry.
He said that three years ago fire alarm boxes were dusted with a chemical power that can be detected under ultra-violet light. Two years ago, two students who turned in false alarms were thrown out of school, an example that served as deterrent by the powder, however, but by an eyewitness.
Georgetown will force a student caught triggering a phony alarm to move out of campus housing.
George Washington officials will subjecting a violator to university discipline and turn over him or her to the police for prosecution. The penalty for turning in a false alarm is up to 10 days in jail and a $300 fine. The university housing office recently announced a $200 reward for information leading to the apprehension and conviction of a fire alarm scofflaw.