Bush fire outside of Belo Center sparks discussion of new evacuation procedures

Julia Brouillette

When a bush caught fire outside the Belo Center for New Media on Monday, someone inside the building pulled the fire alarm and students in the building were ushered directly into the smoke-filled area. Despite the fire, evacuation was not the safest course of action, according to UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey.

Posey will meet with University fire marshal James Johson and emergency preparedness director David Cronk as soon as possible to make changes to the building evacuation policy, Posey said, because in the case of an outdoor fire, students and faculty should dial 911 instead of setting off the fire alarm.

“The emergency preparedness website has all the instructions for what to do if the fire is inside, but it does not specify what to do if the fire is outside the building,” Posey said. “I have a feeling we will be adding that very soon.”

On its website, the Office of Emergency Preparedness outlines the standard safety procedures for building evacuations in the event of an indoor fire, but does not give specific procedures for outdoor fires.

The Office of Emergency Preparedness is responsible for providing instructions for a variety of possible emergency situations, including bomb threats and active shooters on campus. For indoor fire emergencies, the emergency preparedness desk reference manual instructs building occupants to pull the fire alarm before calling 911.

“You are putting people in danger by getting them out of the building and putting them near the area that’s on fire,” Posey said.

Posey said students’ first instinct may be to pull the fire alarm, but, in some situations, there may not be a safe exit from the building.

“I understand it seems counterintuitive,” Posey said. “But if the fire is outside, what happens is [that pulling the fire alarm] does what we call ‘dumping the building,’ which just means it empties the building. So we would prefer that people call 911 first if the fire is outside.”

University communications director Rhonda Weldon said she is unsure whether fire alarm occurrences are recorded. Johnson was unavailable for comment.

Business senior Aakash Batra said he believes the evacuation policy is not made as clear as it should be.

“I don’t know much at all about our evacuation policy,” Batra said. “I mean, I’m sure I could Google it, but I wouldn’t think to do that.”

Other students, such as biology senior Suwetha Amsavelu, said their first instinct would be to exit the building as quickly as possible.

“I would just run,” Amsavelu said. “I’ve always just assumed that you have to evacuate, and my first thought would be to try and get out of the building.”

Safety procedures are not always easy to follow in an emergency situation, according to speech/language pathology senior Jeanan Sfeir.

“Honestly, I don’t know if I would wait for directions,” Sfeir said. “I would pull the fire alarm if I saw a fire because I would assume that is the way to alert people.”