“Inadvertent human error” caused Harbin fire alarm malfunction
“A technician failed to properly reset the system after conducting a monthly test of a fire pump on Friday, October 22,” he wrote in a memo addressed to the University community. “The system was working on Wednesday, October 20, during our regularly scheduled evacuation drill and again on Thursday, October 21 when a smoke alarm triggered an evacuation.”
The evacuation, which began after Public Safety officers discovered students producing DMT in the dormitory’s ninth-floor, was described as “chaos everywhere” by Ted Helfrich (MSB ’14), an eighth-floor resident.
“They tried to pull the fire alarms, but they weren’t going off,” he said.
Dimolitsas noted, however, that the dormitory’s sprinkler system would have activated if a fire or explosion occurred. Redundancies built into the University’s emergency evacuation system notified the Public Safety office after the alarm failed to sound, which sent additional officers to Harbin Hall to knock on students’ doors and evacuate the building.
“Redundant means of effecting evacuations are built into our emergency plans to provide multiple ways of protecting our community,” Dimolitsas wrote.
On October 25, the DCFD Fire Marshall’s office conducted a review of Harbin Hall’s fire alarm system. The system—and the University’s last two years of fire alarm system records—passed inspection.
“We’ve had technicians looking at that and have assured us now that that it was a one time problem,” Olson said in an October interview with campus media.
According to Dimolitsas, the University has re-trained its fire systems personnel and evaluated all fire alarm systems on campus.
“We will continue to regularly conduct drills, evaluate and test our systems, and make improvements when needed,” he wrote.
In the aftermath of the evacuation of Harbin Hall on Saturday, October 23, I would like to offer the following observations as a result of our review of residence hall fire safety systems.
Members of the District of Columbia Office of the Fire Marshal were on campus on Monday, October 25 and conducted a comprehensive review of the Harbin fire protection systems and maintenance records. They reviewed the last two years of fire protection system maintenance records and found them to be in order. In addition, they tested the audible alarms, fire alarm pull stations on each floor, elevator recall systems and associated smoke detectors. They found all systems to be functioning properly.
In addition, my team and I conducted an internal review and found the following:
1) Although the audible portion of the fire safety evacuation system did not sound in Harbin Hall on October 23, the redundancies built into our emergency evacuation system worked. In this instance, a signal was triggered in our Department of Public Safety office, thus enabling staff and law enforcement personnel to make personal visits to individual residences to complete an effective building evacuation. Redundant means of effecting evacuations are built into our emergency plans to provide multiple ways of protecting our community.
2) Fire sprinklers in Harbin were and are working and would have activated if there had been a fire or explosion.
3) We have determined with certainty that the failure of the audible alarm to function properly was the result of an inadvertent human error when a technician failed to properly reset the system after conducting a monthly test of a fire pump on Friday, October 22. The system was working on Wednesday, October 20, during our regularly scheduled evacuation drill and again on Thursday, October 21 when a smoke alarm triggered an evacuation. The fire alarm system was reset properly as soon as the issue was identified on Saturday, October 23.
4) Since the Harbin incident, we have conducted a review of all current fire protection system procedures and protocols. Re-training has been conducted for personnel working on fire protection systems and we’ve revised processes to increase redundancies when conducting work on fire safety systems.
5) All residence-hall fire protection systems have been re-evaluated and found to be working properly.
6) Our protocols for testing and maintaining fire safety protection systems are consistent with best practices in higher education. We will continue to regularly conduct drills, evaluate and test our systems, and make improvements when needed.