Cost of Elon fire alarms: over-budget, underfunded by university

The Elon Fire Department responded to 216 calls from Elon University in 2013, and each one of them came at a price. Each time the fire department is dispatched, it costs the department $400 to $500, according to Elon Fire Chief Eddie King.

The trend shows no signs of stopping. In January 2014 alone, the department responded to 21 false alarms.

Each time the fire department reacts to a triggered alarm, multiple fire trucks from around Alamance County are required to report to the site of the incident. Fuel, manpower and maintenance of the department’s vehicles are expenses the department takes into account.

“It’s coming out of our budget,” King said. “The university gives us a contribution each year, but that’s just for normal fire and medical protection. What we’re seeing with these false alarms is that it’s going over a normal expected amount.”

Donations from the university, along with the Twin Lakes community, the Town of Elon and Alamance Rural, comprise the budget for the Elon Fire Department. The department was promised $560,391 for the 2013-2014 year. Elon University’s contribution made up only 8.9 percent of the total budget.

In 2013, the Elon Fire Department responded to a total of 466 fire alarms in Alamance County, 46 percent of which were set off on Elon’s campus. The department spent anywhere from $86,400 to $113,000 responding to calls from the university alone. This exceeds the university’s $50,000 contribution by as much as $63,000.

Each piece of equipment dispatched to the scene of a fire alarm has its own price. A single fire truck can cost as much as $124 for one hour of use, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Captain David Wright, who has served at the Elon Fire Department for 22 years, said the department has done its best to grow with the campus. But as Elon has expanded, the number of false fire alarms has proliferated.

“I know the student population has increased,” Wright said. “But the number of alarms going off has increased disproportionately to how much the student population has grown.”

Elon encapsulates only 620 acres of the 11 square miles covered by the fire department, and the small force of 12 firefighters, along with the department’s volunteers, has noticed a few trends when it comes to fire alarms on campus.

Nearly half of the false alarms on campus are cooking related, and almost as many are caused by steam.  Steam related fire alarms generally occur in the early afternoon, while fire alarms set off by cooking-related incidents typically happen in the morning and in the middle of the night.

“When the calls come at two in the morning, people are usually coming back from parties,” Wright said. “They’ve been drinking and now they’re hungry.

The Elon Fire Department said it treats all alarms like real fires, which makes the false ones frustrating for the volunteer staff. Photo by Caroline Olney, photo editor.

So they try to cook Easy Mac, and they forget to put the water in.”

With only two firefighters — usually volunteers — on duty at this time of night, the sources of fire alarms from the university have become predictable and, at times, annoying for the fire department staff.

“We’re noticing that it’s creating burnout with our volunteers, and we’re getting less response from them,” Wright said.  “You get complacent because it’s just another call from the Danieley Center.”

Of the fire alarms from 2013, 15 percent were set off in the Danieley Center, and 10 percent occurred in the Greek Courts. The Colonnades are another “problem area” for the fire department.

“We’re skating by, and one of these days, it’s not going to be a false alarm,” Wright said.

A fire destroyed most of Elon’s main campus in 1923. University historian George Troxler said the cause of the fire was never nailed down, but fire officials suspected it resulted from an electrical spark. Since then, the university has increased its fire safety precautions substantially, drastically increasing the number of alarms on campus. Troxler said that when the university rebuilt after the fire, the new buildings were considered “fire-proof,” erecting structures with slate rooves and other nonflammable materials.

The Elon Fire Department now responds to every alarm at the university, without fail, following an initial notification from campus security. Chief of Security Scott Jean said campus security, like the fire department, responds to each fire alarm.

“Most of them are burnt food or shower steam — so they aren’t truly false — but we still have to respond and write up a report,” Jean said.

Sophomore Catherine Van Eyck has lived in the Danieley Center for two years and, having experienced a number of fire alarms, isn’t surprised cooking errors cause the majority.

“I know that a lot of people burn their food, but I’ve never seen any actual fires. It’s mainly just really annoying,” she said.

The false fire alarms Van Eyck finds annoying come at a price nationwide. According to the United States Fire Administration, cooking incidents were the leading causes of fires in 2011 and resulted in a loss of more than $6 million in property nationwide. Between 2007 and 2011, cooking equipment was involved in 84 percent of the nation’s reported dormitory fires.

But most of the kitchen-based fire alarms are triggered by excess smoke. All of the apartments in the Danieley Center, Crest, the Station at Mill Point and the Oaks have kitchens or kitchenettes. In Colonnades, each hall contains a full kitchen, and each Greek house in the Loy Center comes equipped with a kitchen — all potential fire sources.

King said the monetary costs of responding to false fire alarms are matched by the potential dangers.  While dealing with false alarms at Elon, the department cannot respond to other legitimate fire alarms.

“Every time I put a fireman out there responding to an emergency, I’m putting their lives in the hands of the people who are creating these problems,” he said.

The problem is a human one, King said, and it shouldn’t be so prevalent.

“It’s the human problem that’s growing,” he said. “It’s affecting the safety of all the firefighters responding because they’re putting their lives on the line to come do something that’s preventable.”

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