It’s a scene that’s all too familiar at Elon University — students seeking refuge outside because an alarm went off in their dorm.
It happened in the middle of the night last fall to freshman Sydney Schapel, who lives in East Neighborhood Building B.
“When we had that really huge, awful snowstorm, I was just laying in my bed one night and had the lights off, and all of a sudden, this blinding light went off in my eyes,” Schapel said.
At first, she thought someone had simply taken a photo of her. But then came the noise.
“The alarm went off, and I was like, ‘Oh cool. Time to grab as many clothes as I can so that I can run out into the cold,’” Schapel said. She said her hall mates would come outside wrapped in towels, fresh from the shower desperately trying to stay warm in the freezing temperatures. The fire trucks came, but the cause of the alarm ended up being excess steam from a resident’s shower.
None of the fire alarms that went off in buildings on Elon’s campus in the 2018 calendar year were caused by actual flames. Fire Chief Alva Sizemore said the Elon Fire Department responded to 254 fire calls overall on campus. Ten of those were malfunctions in the system, and the rest were because the alarm was set off by something else — burnt popcorn, extra crispy bacon or an especially steamy shower.
Sizemore sat at his desk and read through some recent incident reports. “We responded to a fire alarm. When we got there, Campus Security was already there. Light smoke was in the residence, and the alarm showed a kitchen detector, ” Sizemore said. “Burnt food was the cause, so security reset the alarm, and we cleared the scene.”
The Elon Fire Department spends most of its time responding to medical emergencies.
When it comes to fires, Sizemore said he spends the bulk of his resources on preparation — training the team, making sure the buildings are up to code, having working sprinkler systems and making it easier for the team in the case of a real fire. Fire alarms are set off by smoke detectors when they sense something in the air, and Sizemore said because of the strict standards, they go off more often than he would like.
“But we have to treat every fire alarm like it is a structure fire cause we don’t know, you’ve got to treat it as a structure fire until we can get there and verify that hey, it’s not,” Sizemore said.
For every structure fire alarm, the initial dispatch is two fire engines and one ladder truck from Elon’s fire department. Assistant Fire Chief Charles Walker said because the fire department's resources here are limited, they engage in a mutual aid program with other local engines. Trucks from Gibsonville and Altamahaw-Ossipee are also dispatched upon the sound of an alarm. That brings the total to at least five trucks and seven people for every single building alarm, but Walker said they do it because they don’t want to lose any time.
“If it’s in a dorm or there’s a few hundred students in that dorm, you know, we have life safety to be concerned about, and property loss," Walker said. "If there is a fire, we have the resources on hand to take care of that at the time without being further behind. A basic working incident you're going to need 10, 12 people right off the bat."
Walker said that becasue the Gibsonville and Altamahaw-Ossipee fire departments are a bit farther away, a lot of times the Elon Fire Department can arrive on the scene and immediately confirm that it’s not a structure fire and the students are safe. Those trucks can turn around before they get there, but they still are initially dispatched.
“The fire service as a whole across the nation tends to run on very low manpower or very low staffing,” Walker said. Still, that staff responds to every single alarm.
Breaking down the budget
The budget for Elon’s fire department is $2,359,700 for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 31. That is 32 percent of the town’s general fund. Last year, 13 percent of all fire calls the department responded to were on-campus buildings where someone set off an alarm by mistake.
Emily Sharpe, one of the five members of Elon’s governing town council, the Board of Aldermen, said the town’s full-time residents foot most of the bill.
“Our fire department, our police department and all of the services town-wide are funded mostly by the residents of the town of Elon who pay taxes to the town of Elon,” Sharpe said. Going forward, she said the university should have more discussions about who takes responsibility for the costs.
Elon University does contribute $137,000 to the town’s general fund every year — but that’s less than 2 percent of the general fund budget. Vice President for University Communications Dan Anderson said in an email the money goes to support town services, and it comes from the university’s operating budget. On top of the annual contribution, the university gives additional money for specific construction projects downtown.
Sharpe said part of that annual contribution pays the salary for a downtown development coordinator, and that with the rest of Elon's money there's no specific designation towards the fire department--it's all a lump sum to the town.
Sizemore said there's no way to know exactly how much money each call costs--but the engines are complicated and cost hundreds of dollars an hour to run, and each false alarm lasts about half an hour.
Walker says no cost to the department is worth gambling on people's lives. "The dollar amount is a lot of money coming, but it's necessary."
On the Scene
Isaac Faucette has been a firefighter in the town of Elon since 2007. He said he’s had his fair share of alarms on campus.
“I know sometimes they can be aggravating and be a little bit of a nuisance, but they’re in place for a reason," Faucette said, that reason being student safety. "It's very easy to get complacent."
Responding to the alarms set off by steam or poor cooking is all part of the job, and Faucette says his coworkers have come to expect it in a college town.
“I’d rather respond to a smoke alarm from a shower or whatever than the real thing because first and foremost, I want people to be safe, but you still have to go all out for it,” Faucette said.
Sometimes, he'll meet students on scene who are apologetic about setting off the alarm. "We do appreciate them thinking about us and, and, and thanking us."
If a student does set off a fire alarm accidentally, Director of Residence Life MarQuita Barker said in an email, “There are no repercussions other than an educational conversation about how to prevent it in the future.”
"I just wish people knew how to be smarter with their cooking sometimes," Faucette said.
Sharpe said she doesn't think students realize the cost they are having on the town.
"I would say to students 'you’re adults now and you have to think about these things,'" Sharpe said.
Elon doesn't charge for accidental alarms, but some cities have a fee if you dispatch the fire department (either by calling or by setting off an alarm that automatically pages them) for a non-emergency. In Raleigh, a false alarm ordinance has been in effect since 2004. Residents get a written warning the first time, but there's a fine starting at $50 the second offense that increases with each additional alarm.
At the end of the day, Sharpe said she’s even more worried about the fire department having limited resources than wasting money.
“I hope that they’re not called out on an accidental situation where as student is burning popcorn or the shower is too hot and it takes them away from a real emergency,” Sharpe said. “I think that’s my biggest concern.”
Correction: In a previous version of the story, it was written that Elon's annual donation to the town goes towards projects and construction. The annual donation actually goes towards town services and the university makes additional contributions for specific construction projects. Elon News Network regrets the error.