Frequent false fire alarms in Harbin pose serious safety concerns

May 8, 2022

Illustration by Deborah Han

Since the beginning of the spring semester, the first-year residents of Harbin Hall have been woken by the blaring fire alarm at all hours of the night. These constant alarms have disrupted sleeping and learning habits and have created serious fire safety concerns by lowering evacuation rates. 

Students have been frustrated as the alarms have become an almost weekly occurrence; some nights, the alarm is pulled more than once. 

“The first one, it was like, ‘Ugh, do I really have to get out of bed?’ So we got out of bed and went down. Then the second one went off, and we were like, ‘It’s not real, so do we still have to go down?’” Lauren Loeffler (NHS ’25), a resident on the ninth floor said. “And then the third and fourth ones, we just started gathering in the hallway and yelling at the fire alarm to shut off. I’d go outside more to escape the alarm sound.” 

The frequent alarm-pulling has also proved challenging for students academically, many of whom feel their sleep schedules have been thrown into disarray. 

“I just don’t like being woken up. Since I’m grinding my [Comparative Political Systems] paper, I went to sleep earlier last night, so the 3 a.m. wakeup was unfortunate,” Chris Robinson (SFS ’24), a resident of the seventh floor, said after one of the more recent incidents. 

Some blame the disruptions on the actions of drunk students. “I think it’s first and foremost a testament to the immaturity of college students and college freshmen in particular. There are a lot of random rumors that this is a frat hazing, that this is for club bonding or something, but it is just people getting drunk and screwing around,” a Harbin residential assistant (RA), who requested to remain anonymous as the Office of Residential Living prohibits its employees from talking to the press about their roles, said.

Harbin RAs and residents have contacted the Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD), the Office of Residential Living, and the Georgetown University Fire Marshall numerous times to express their concerns, receiving multiple email responses but little material change until April 9, the most recent fire alarm incident. That same night, one of the smoke detectors was destroyed, and both elevators were shut down for the next 24 hours.

According to the RA, measures have since been put in place to prevent the fire alarms from being pulled, but the details have not been officially released to ensure that students do not try to find ways around them. The extent of such measures is limited, however, by Georgetown’s privacy policy, which limits authorized access to recorded materials, especially from security cameras. 

“They’re doing about as much as I’d be comfortable with. How would they figure out who’s doing it if they’re not going door-to-door, putting security cameras, all this stuff that, in my opinion, would be a blatant violation of privacy?” Robinson said.

Harbin residents have also received a series of emails from Jeanne F. Lord, interim vice president for student affairs and dean of students, and Jay Gruber, chief of police and associate vice president for public safety, the most recent of which was sent on April 12. The emails have reminded students that causing a false fire alarm is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and/or up to six months of incarceration as per the Code of the District of Columbia and a violation of Georgetown’s Code of Student Conduct.

“Any student found responsible for a false fire alarm will face significant consequences, including but not limited to suspension or dismissal from the University, even for a first-time violation,” Lord and Gruber wrote in an April 14 email.

Beyond the disruptions caused by the alarms, there are concerns about the fire safety issues that may arise from the situation. While students have been reminded that evacuating the building when an alarm is pulled is mandatory, Harbin residents, assuming the alarm is merely another “joke,” have struggled to find the motivation to do so. 

“Evacuation is so low right now. I don’t think more than maybe 10 of my maybe 60-some residents evacuate at this point, which is incredibly concerning,” the Harbin RA said.

Some students were fearful of the longer-term implications the alarms could have on the first-year dorms. “I think it’s an issue that does need to get taken care of because people are going to want to not live in Harbin,” Loeffler said, “[Fire alarms are] going to happen in a freshman dorm, but the constant recurrence is not something that should happen because it does lead to issues with safety.” 

The Harbin fire alarm situation has not been the only safety issue afflicting on-campus residential housing. At approximately 1:00 a.m. on Sept. 19, 2021, an intruder armed with a small pocket knife entered New South Hall, another first-year dorm. The intruder was only apprehended the following day by GUPD. Some believe the poor communication and handling of on-campus safety concerns reflect how understaffed the Office of Residential Living currently is. 

“Four or five [community directors] have quit in the past two semesters, leaving the department itself incredibly understaffed, and as a result, it’s been very difficult to get through to Res Living and encourage them to actually make attempts to fix the situation,” the Harbin RA said.

According to a university spokesperson, the two most recent fire alarm pulls were related to cooking incidents. Additionally, because there have not been any more occurrences since Easter break, residents hope that the upcoming finals season will keep others from pulling the alarm. 

“I’m really hoping it’s done. With finals, I don’t think people would be stupid enough to pull them, but we’ll see,” Loeffler said.

Michelle Serban
Michelle is a sophomore in the SFS majoring in International Economics and minoring in Statistics. She loves jigsaw puzzles, believes that persimmons are the best fruit, and is a big classical music fan.

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