The incessant, wailing cry of a fire alarm is a well-known sound across most communities, but not nearly as familiar as it is to the students and staff of Eagle Rock Jr. Sr. High School. We’ve all heard the fire alarms going off throughout the school like clockwork. We’ve reached the point where something that should always be taken seriously is being used as a joke. And, news flash, it isn’t funny. This nuisance has at some points become an almost daily occurrence and is possibly one of the most annoying issues this school has been forced to deal with in many years.
This, as we all know, is a burden on everyone. It’s extremely difficult to focus on anything when the loud wails of the fire alarms are blaring constantly overhead. This is not only an issue just because of how annoying it is; it has become a serious threat to safety as well.
Fires are a grave issue all over the world and to California especially, so not only is it wildly insensitive and dangerous to use the fire alarms as a joke; it’s also illegal. In just one year, fire departments respond to an estimated average of 3,230 structure fires in schools each year, a number not to be taken lightly.
According to California penal code 148.4, pulling a fire alarm under false pretenses can result in jail time, probation, and large fines. Tampering with a fire alarm, making a false report of a fire, and triggering a false fire alarm are all crimes that fall under this section. As a misdemeanor, pulling a fire alarm can result in the aforementioned consequences.
“It’s been an issue going far back into our school history,” says Mr. Steinorth, principal of Eagle Rock Jr. Sr. High School. To the annoyance of students and administrators alike, our current semester has seemingly held far more alarm pulls than the past year. But according to Steinorth, this is something that’s been going on for at least 25 years.
Once the all too familiar sound of the fire alarm goes off, time-consuming and tedious tasks unravel. In the first place, there are multiple stations to set off the alarm scattered across campus, any one of them susceptible to being pulled. School employees are forced to search the school for the manual fire alarm pulls, or “pull stations” that caused the system to go off in order to stop the beeping and flashing. Mr. Lord says in grim humor, “we’re completely handicapped in what we can do except run to the pull station, reset the sub-panel, call the fire department, say false alarm don’t come- You know all these things, like rats scurrying everywhere, and that gets old.” This “scurrying” is why it takes so long to stop the awful flashing and blaring we see and hear in our classrooms.
In order to reset the fire system, employees must have a special key. Many alarms are also equipped with a sub-panel from which it is necessary to reset the system again. Only after all these steps are completed (not to mention how long it may take to find the first fire alarms that were set off) will the deafening beeps finally cease.
It is a pain, not only for the students and teachers who have to listen to the blaring (in class or elsewhere), but also for the people who work at our school whose paygrade does not include having to constantly turn off fire alarms which should not even be going off in the first place. But even more paramount, it is essentially a life or death matter. “[Pulling the fire alarm] is a very serious thing, but the more serious thing is one, it takes the fire department out of service to respond to other emergencies which places peoples’ lives in jeopardy. In the big picture, the fact that we have a campus that’s conditioned to not respond to an alarm, the fact that nobody leaves their room when an alarm goes off, potentially places everybody’s life at risk on campus,” Mr. Steinorth says gravely. “It is something that has to change.”
A Different Perspective
In order to include a multitude of perspectives regarding this issue, we decided to dig a little deeper into what our teachers have to say about this. Ms. Ortiz, an English teacher here at ERHS, agreed to answer our questions on the matter: “...over the last school year,” Ms. Ortiz writes, “this problem seems to have intensified.” So, it’s true that it wasn’t just our imaginations when we all collectively thought that the problem had gotten a lot worse in the 2021-2022 school year. This is something that shouldn’t be happening at all! “Some of the alarm tamperings can be attributed to the limited supervision of our hallways. It’s my understanding that we currently have only three campus aides.”
When asked about what the loud and impossible-to-ignore beeps bring to a classroom setting, Ms. Ortiz was able to provide us with important insight into the situation of both teachers and students in these exasperating scenarios. “False fire alarms blaring and bright lights flashing in classrooms for extensive periods is disruptive both to instruction and learning, and although our students do their best to disregard the noise and remain focused on their work, they no doubt are adversely impacted.” Ms. Ortiz also addressed the dangers that these (literal) false alarms give way to. “It creates a dangerous situation, as we are being conditioned to dismiss repeated alarms.”
Ms. Ortiz was able to put into words a perfect representation of our thoughts (as ERJSHS community members) on the act of pulling the fire alarms. She expressed how maddening it is that someone might find tampering with the safety of our school community amusing. “It’s not funny, and it’s immature,” she says.
As is well known to our school community, students also suffer greatly from this impediment. “Personally, it has affected my hearing through the sense that I do have impaired hearing,” says Mar, a fellow student, “but I also have a panic disorder which means I’m very sensitive to noise, especially constant loud noise.”
They continued by explaining that while they have been able to get used to it, “the long-term effects are still there.” They illustrated that they are forced to focus solely on trying to keep themself calm, which is evidently extremely disruptive to their learning, especially when being distracted by not only the loud beeps but also the intense flashing lights.
And in a final statement to the alarm pulling perpetrators Mar says, “It’s not funny, it’s never been funny. If you want to play a funny joke there are other ways to do it.” And we all share in this sentiment, of course. Everyone is burdened by this. “It does not favor anyone; the only person it favors is you,” Mar concludes.
This should not be something we have to worry about. The fire alarms are meant to be lifesavers, and the only times we should be hearing them are during emergencies. And now they’re not only becoming actual safety hazards, but they’re also making it extremely difficult to maintain a peaceful learning and teaching environment, potentially endangering the safety and learning of teachers and students alike.
The question many people have been asking is: what would happen if there were a real fire? “My hope at this point, because people are so conditioned to not respond to the alarms,” says Principal Steinorth, “that if it were, say, on the hill or something, we would be able to make an announcement to evacuate before the alarm went off. If we didn’t get that, we have the ability to send messages to teachers through text messages and so forth.”
It is extremely important to note that the fire alarms should be helping us escape if there ever were a real fire, and should not at all be something we should be trying to work our way around. “Sometimes people don’t look at their phones or text messages so none of those things are perfect. We would probably have to send somebody basically door to door to make sure that classes were evacuating,” Steinorth explains.
Assistant Principal Lord was able to provide us with further insight regarding the emergency scenarios where there could be a real fire; “We have a lot of those contingency plans in place, like different scenarios, of how we would do things. We just hope that they’re going to work if that actually happens; if there’s an actual fire.”
Whoever is pulling the fire alarm clearly does not understand how serious this is. It is illegal, insensitive, and extremely dangerous when it comes to the event of a real fire. Not to mention the serious effects it has on teachers and students trying to teach and learn in our school community.
Indeed, students pulling the fire alarms as a joke or just for the sake of social status is not the only cause of these alarms randomly going off. Our systems are admittedly faulty, which is far from unimaginable because of how old they are. According to Mr. Steinorth, there are plans to have them replaced starting April 2022. One of the most prominent parts of our system improvements will center around the removal of pull stations. Unfortunately, besides reckless kids setting the alarms off, our system suffers from electronic malfunctions and the detection of smoke from vaping or cigarettes can trigger fire alarms. At one point, a helium balloon during the basketball senior night set off a fire alarm sensor. So it’s true, these pranks aren’t the only source of all this, but either way this should still not be happening under any circumstances.
Above all, any disruption to the school environment is detrimental to the learning, teaching, and safety of Eagle Rock Jr. Sr. High School. And while it hasn’t been caused all by one thing, Mr. Steinorth and Mr. Lord strongly encourage the student body to report if there are any sightings or knowledge of people who are pulling the fire alarms. It would be an amazing help to all of us, as this is a huge burden on our school community. In addition, by following the rules of the newly implemented hall pass, we can continue keeping our school safe and slowly ease out of this time where fire alarms are the background music of our classrooms. Anything can help in the long run. So while this issue has proven to be quite difficult to solve, not all hope is lost. As a community, we can put in the work to stop it.