False Alarms in Leo Frustrate Faculty

By Sophia Sakelleriou, Production Editor

A fire alarm wails with the shriek of warning that danger is near, yet the classroom of Dr. Michael Plugh’s senior seminar class does not move from their seats. The door is closed to block out the sound as the alarm continues to wail and Plugh continues to teach. This is the new norm in the Leo building.  The frequent triggering of alarms have deemed routine evacuation not necessary and other professors are in agreement with Plugh’s actions.

The Leo Engineering Building of Manhattan College’s south campus has experienced several disturbances from fire alarm systems in the past few years. From multiple alarms going off in one day to flashing lights remaining on for hours at a time, these alarms disrupt the college’s learning environment and faculty and students alike are fed up.

“I can’t even count the number of times [the alarms have gone off], but certainly several times a year. You’ll have an alarm go off and then it’ll go back on again. Students stand up and sit down and leave the room and go back in the room,” said Plugh, a professor of communication at Manhattan. “We always move to evacuate, we sometimes pause in the hallway to see what other people or doing or hear if anyone’s calling out false alarm, but we eventually leave unless it gets turned off.”

Plugh’s colleagues within the communication department have echoed his sentiments. The communication department office is located near the Corlear entrance of the Leo Engineering Building. Dr. Robert Coleman, a professor of communication, and Kaitlin Scheie, an administrative assistant, work within that department all year round and both agreed that the problem has worsened since construction on the south campus started in 2017.

“In the beginning [the department] would go out and ask the Dean’s office and they wouldn’t know. Everyone would start evacuating and then we would be told that it’s just a false alarm, but nobody came around telling us that there was gonna be fire alarms,” Scheie said. “Some days we would get a heads up like literally one time the guy popped in and said there’s gonna be a fire drill and I told the office and the fire alarm went off with one minute notice and there’s classes going on.”

However, Coleman argued that being notified is “the exception not the rule,” going so far as to say that the times they’ve been notified that there’s going to be a fire alarm is probably one out of 50 times that the fire alarm went off.

“On some occasions, the fire alarm would not only go off once a week, but multiple times in one day. There were times when the fire alarm went off four to five separate occasions in one day,” Coleman said.

Coleman also said that the alarms have gone off at least 50 to 60 times in the past year and a half alone. Yet, Scheie thinks it is much more than that and the problem disrupted her work all summer long.

“The strobes could go off for hours,” Coleman said. “As a matter of fact, last week when I had class in the computer lab the fire alarm went off, of course as usual. The alarm was silent, but the strobe went off and it is in fron to my computer classroom in front of all my students. With that strobe going off its really terrible. You can get a seizure from it, I’m serious, or you can at least get headaches.”

Many members of the Manhattan College community who frequent south campus point to the ongoing construction as the cause of the problem. In late 2016, the college announced plans to renovate its south campus. This includes the Leo Engineering Building, RLC and the Mahan Physical Plant Complex as well as the adjacent area between West 238th and West 240th Street.

Dr. Plugh explained that fire alarms have been disruptive since he arrived at the college in the fall of 2016, but noticed the problem has worsened since construction started.

“Since construction started [the disruptions] have gotten worse, but at least that’s a thing I would be alarmed by. I know there’s construction going on next door so the possibility of some sort of hazard is very real,” Plugh said. “This makes it even more frustrating when they happen accidentally all the time, since I know that [the alarms] could be real in a way that they weren’t before.”

Fire alarms are understandable when necessary. After all, their purpose is to alert people of danger so they can move to safety in a timely fashion. However, their frequency and irregularity have decreased reaction time, even during drills when the college community should be reacting as they would in the case of a real fire so they are prepared when one occurs.

The south campus construction was overseen by Andrew Ryan, the college’s vice president of facilities for 11 years. He oversaw the construction of the Raymond W. Kelly Student Commons, the Patricia and Neil Higgins ’62 Engineering and Science Center, and major renovations to Leo, De La Salle Hall, and Smith Hall.

Construction on Manhattan’s South Campus is projected to be finished by Fall 2020. SOPHIA SAKELLERIOU / COURTESY

However, Ryan stepped down this past year, leaving the position void. Matthew McManness, Manhattan College’s vice president of finance, is serving in an interim role with the facilities team until a new hire is found and must deal with these challenges in his wake. One of which is the fire alarm situation on south campus.

“We are very aware of the disruptions.  Each of the disruptions are handled expeditiously and thoroughly reviewed.  It’s important to note that we are attempting to do major renovation work while the facility is being used and therefore, some disruptions will occur,” McManness said via email.

The construction environment has created several triggers for the alarm systems.

“The cause of the disruptions vary.  One alarm was triggered by dust outside the building entering an open window.  Another alarm was due to a leak that shorted out a device that causes the alarm to be tripped.  There have been some alarms triggered by accident when operating the fire alarm panel,” McManness said. “In all, we have attempted to keep the disruptions as minimal as possible.  The system is new and has required followup training by the school personnel operating it.  Each alarm is taken seriously and steps are taken to prevent repeat occurrences.”

McManness said via email that the project managers on the construction indicated that there have been no further fire alarm disruptions since the fall 2019 term.

Scheie recalled only one incident over the break where an alarm went off without a warning, and the department was informed that it was just a test and they did not have to evacuate. Aside from that, she noted that the disruptions have greatly diminished and, along with other members of the department, hopes it stays that way.

“It’s a real phenomenon that’s affecting us in this building because at a certain point you stop believing there’s a fire and you linger, and that’s a big problem,” Plugh said.