Noble Hall creates headaches for firefighters

This story was co-written by Haley Smith and Meghan O’Sullivan. Originally published in The Sylva Herald. Some numbers have been updated.

Noble Hall, WCU's newest building. Photo by Meghan O'Sullivan

Noble Hall, WCU’s newest building. Photo by Meghan O’Sullivan

Volunteer firemen have rushed to Western Carolina University 54 times since the begining of August, because of malfunctioning fire alarms at new Noble Hall.

“They tell me that they’re working to try to figure it out,” Cullowhee Fire Chief Tim Green said. “There may be a problem where we’re needed somewhere else. It’s wearing the firemen out.”

Dirty detector heads are causing the alarms to sound, according to public documents. WCU Director of Capital Projects Matt Ketchum said workers failed to properly cover the equipment.

“So, sheetrock dust, and other dust, from the construction process settled in and around the heads of the smoke detectors,” he said. “It is a complicated situation involving a rather technologically advanced fire-alarm system. We realize that false alarms are inconvenient, not only to our students, but also to our local fire department.”

Noble Hall is a mixed-use facility, with a combination of retail stores and restaurants on the ground floor and student housing overhead. Residents moving in stirred up the dust, triggering the alarms, Ketchum said. Facilities management crews have cleaned the smoke-detector heads.

It’s like crying wolf to have so many false alarms, according to WCU student Mandy McDuffie. Residents “come out of their rooms at a leisurely pace and complain while walking down the stairs. Who knows what would happen if it was actually a real fire?” McDuffie said.

Student Chris Lang agreed.

“You wake up at 1 a.m. to a fire alarm, and you know you need to get out – but its like, do I really have to? Because, I am now in the mindset that there is nothing wrong,” Lang said. “It went off at 8 a.m. one day and I didn’t care. I finished getting ready for class and left 15 minutes later.”

Lang said that he’s considering moving to a different dorm.

Students say they were told to shower with their bathroom-doors open to prevent steam from setting off alarms. They are also supposed to avoid using excessive air freshener, hairspray or perfume. Alarms triggered by steam or spray are being replaced with occupancy-activated units, WCU’s Ketchum said. When someone enters the room, a fan turns on.

The Jackson County Permitting and Code Enforcement Office inspects new structures to make sure they comply with state laws. Noble Hall’s fire alarms contain “smart heads.” This equipment learns from the environment and adapts. In the future, this should help reduce the number of false alarms, department Director Tony Elders said. “Also, Noble Hall has a full kitchen on each floor, and I believe one or two of the alarms were caused by students burning some food in the oven or on the range top,” he said.

The residential portion of 120,000-square-foot Noble Hall is finished. The ground floor should be completed in early 2017. Bob’s Mini Mart will open first, then Subway, followed by MadStone Cafe & Catching Light Books, Blackrock Outdoor Co. and chain restaurant Chili’s Grill and Bar.

“We are now to the point where we are having no more false alarms in Noble Hall than any other residence hall on campus,” WCU’s Ketchum said.

There have been 17 additional alarm malfunctions in Noble Hall since Sept. 9, when Ketchum made this statement. This is significantly fewer than is typical for Noble Hall, but still more than other buildings on campus during that same time period, according to a review of data contained in WCU’s fire log.