Electrical fire emergency response delayed due to annual testing

Editor’s note: This story is the first of multiple developing stories.

It took 15 minutes before they realized help wasn’t coming.

Faculty and students evacuated the H Building last summer after an electrical fire broke out in a computer lab. What they did not realize was the building’s fire alarm was set to “test,” and the Monroe Township Fire Department was not going to respond.

“We were out front kind of waiting for an emergency response, and it was several minutes,” said Helen Stripling, director of respiratory therapy.

Around 15 minutes after the fire was discovered, Stripling said she called 911 at 11:45 a.m. According to the MCCC incident report, Nicole Garner, professor of nursing, called Safety Services at 11:48 a.m.

Both made their calls while waiting outside after evacuating the H Building.

Garner said the college’s Safety Services told her it was a false alarm because they were working on the system. 

Jack Burns, director of Campus Planning and Facilities, said the college performs annual testing on the fire alarm system. The fire alarm was set to “test” due to the annual system maintenance. 

If the fire alarm had worked properly, the fire department could have responded 15 minutes sooner, given that it took firefighters 6 minutes to arrive after the call finally went out. 

Instead, the fire department arrived at 11:51 a.m., 21 minutes after the fire was discovered and after Garner had already extinguished it using a fire extinguisher.

Garner said she spotted the fire while teaching a class at around 11:30 a.m. July 28.

She said she exited Room H-105, where her summer class was located, when the lights went out. She left the classroom to investigate the power outage and spotted the fire across the hall in the computer lab in Room H-104. She said she instructed her four students to pull a nearby fire alarm.

Garner said she then walked down the hall to alert Stripling about the fire. Garner said she thought Stripling was the only person, besides her students, who was also in the building. 

After alerting Stripling, Garner said she then grabbed the fire extinguisher next to the water fountain, returned to the computer lab, extinguished the fire on the ceiling and floor and then evacuated the building.

However, Garner said her students who had evacuated told her that an emergency door malfunctioned and three of them were unable to exit the building through the emergency exit. Instead, they had to pass the computer lab and leave through the main entrance.

Stripling said she and the others who evacuated waited outside for a while with no response.

Garner said she had to explain to Safety Services that her students pulled the alarm and that it was an actual fire. 

According to the college’s incident report, Jeffrey Schmidt, MCCC security personnel, and the Monroe Township Fire Department responded to the scene at approximately 11:51 a.m.

To ensure everyone had evacuated the building, Schmidt walked through the building.

According to the Fire Department incident report, the department concluded a light fixture caught fire.

After the fire, Garner and Stripling asked for a debriefing about the fire’s events.

A debriefing was scheduled for Sep. 14 by Curtis Creagh, vice president of Finance and Administration.

Garner said she assumed the meeting would be rescheduled after she communicated having scheduling conflicts. 

However, Garner and Stripling were informed that the debrief had happened without them present.

The main entrance to the H Building. (Photo by Layla Pavlick.)
The computer lab, Room-104, is where the electrical fire originated in on July 28. (Photo by Layla Pavlick.)
The emergency exit students attempted to evacuate out of July 28 in the H Building. (Photo by Layla Pavlick.)
The fire alarm, next to the emergency exit, that students pulled July 28. (Photo by Maggie Sandefur.)
Nicole Garner and her students were in Room H-105 across the hall from where the electrical fire originated July 28. (Photo by Layla Pavlick.)
Location of the fire extinguisher Nicole Garner used July 28. (Photo by Maggie Sandefur.)