Smoking microwave sparks concern

Residence halls at SPU have plenty of smoke detectors. However, none are in the lounge kitchens.

This prevents students from accidentally setting off an alarm every time they burn a small amount of food, said Associate Director of Safety and Security Vic Peirsol.

For a fire alarm to be activated, the lounge’s room temperature must increase enough to trigger a heat detector in the ceiling. Equipping lounges with heat detectors or sprinklers instead of smoke detectors minimizes the number of false alarms in residence halls, Peirsol said.

However, when smoke filled an Emerson Hall lounge on Nov. 18, no evident rise in temperature also meant no fire alarms were triggered.

While walking down their hall around 10:30 p.m., sophomore Kevin Crow and several other third east Emerson residents smelled smoke.

Rushing into their lounge kitchen, the men saw yellow smoke pouring out of a vent above the microwave.

A floor mate had not added enough water to his plastic bowl of instant ramen noodles before leaving it to cook in the lounge microwave, Crow said.

About 50 seconds remained on the microwave when Crow turned it off, he said. The now-black noodles looked as if they had been charred, freshman Bryce Beblavi said.

Walking into the smoke-filled lounge made it hard to breathe, Crow said. The men covered their mouths with their shirts to not breathe in the smoke, he said.

Yellow smoke covered the top of the lounge ceiling, Crow said. "Literally the first foot and a half were pure smoke," he said.

The men rushed to open all the lounge windows, and windows across the hall. "We took off all our coats and started fanning it," Crow said.

The men alerted their peer advisor and brought fans to clear out the smoke, Beblavi said.

Emerson Hall Resident Life Coordinator Brian Jensen came out of his room on the third east floor because he smelled the smoke, Crow said. Jensen worried that the fire alarms had not gone off and called Safety and Security, Crow said.

Though the lounge has no smoke detector, there are three others in the hall nearby.

"For some reason, the smoke just hadn’t got to them," Crow said. "We were still pretty surprised that the fire alarms didn’t go off."

The smoke stayed mainly in the lounge and did not spread into the hallways nearly as much, Beblavi said.

According to Peirsol, the alarms would have gone off if there had been more smoke in the hallways.

Burnt food in residence halls is not an isolated incident. Two days after the incident in Emerson, burnt popcorn set off a fire alarm in Ashton Hall, according to a fire log provided by Safety and Security. A day later, burnt food set off an alarm in Hill Hall, the log stated.

Unlike in Emerson, both cases set off the alarm and Seattle Fire Department was called.

The Seattle fire code is specific and very tight on regulations for residence halls, Peirsol said. It requires that alarms are checked once a year, though SPU actually checks the residence halls once a quarter; during each break, he said.

Still, Peirsol and a security officer went to Emerson Hall that Friday to make sure the three smoke detectors nearest to the lounge were working properly, he said.

The red lights on all three smoke detectors were flashing and not solid red, which indicates that they were operating properly, he said.

In the event of an actual fire, the hall’s sprinklers would have been activated, Peirsol said.

SPU’s fire alarm system consists of smoke detectors, heat detectors, sprinklers and a centralized alarm panel, Peirsol said. The alarm panel would receive a "trouble signal" if a smoke detector was not working, he said.

The human nose is more sensitive to smoke than a detector is, Peirsol said.

This seemed to be the case in Emerson Hall on Wednesday night.

"People were actually waking up because they smelled it and it was that strong," Crow said. The smell was like burnt popcorn, but worse, he said.

Though standing in smoke is certainly irritating, the Emerson Hall lounge was cleared quickly enough that it should not pose a health risk to any of the students, Peirsol said.

Other than his floor smelling bad for a few days, Crow did not think the smoke was as big of a deal as it could have been.

"If we didn’t walk by when we did, it could have been a lot worse," Crow said. He is pleased with how quickly his floor mates reacted to help clear the smoke.

"It all happened really fast and we dealt with it pretty well," he said.

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Title: Smoking microwave sparks concern | Author: Beth Douglass | Section: News | Published Date: 2009-12-02 | Internal ID: 6725