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Baxter House banned from hosting basement events due to puzzling fire safety concerns

April 7, 2023

Emily Campbell
BAX TO THE DRAWING BOARD: Baxter house has been barred from hosting basement events for the remainder of the semester due to a pattern of false fire alarms. The issue with the system has yet to be diagnosed.

Last week, the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) notified residents of Baxter House that they will not be permitted to register indoor events for the rest of the semester. The decision is the result of an unresolved issue with Baxter’s fire safety system that has caused the fire alarm to erroneously activate on multiple occasions, specifically during large gatherings.

Faulty fire alarm activations—“nuisance alarms”—have occasionally troubled College Houses in years past, but the frequency of Baxter’s nuisance alarms has spiked dramatically this year. Last semester alone, Baxter’s fire alarm was falsely triggered approximately five times.

When Baxter’s pattern of nuisance alarms emerged last semester, Facilities and ResLife became concerned about its safety implications.

“[Facilities and ResLife] were worried that because it was going off every weekend, that over time people would become desensitized to it … and if it went off and there was an actual fire, then people wouldn’t leave because they wouldn’t think it was serious,” Baxter resident Eleanor Donahue ’25 said.

As the cause of the nuisance alarms remains largely a mystery, the path to resolving the issue remains unclear. Facilities’ trouble diagnosing the issue has led to a restriction on the house’s indoor events, Associate Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects Jeff Tuttle explained in an email to the Orient.

“We do not have definitive answers at this point and that is what is concerning. Shortly before [Covid-19] we did a complete fire system upgrade and then of course we went two years without any large gatherings in the basement,” Tuttle wrote. “Something has changed within that space which seems to be triggering conditions of high humidity when a substantial crowd is gathered.”

As Tuttle noted, the nuisance alarms have been most commonly triggered when large groups have gathered in Baxter’s basement, causing some residents to suspect that body heat and humidity alone could be enough to trigger the fire alarm.

Others have questioned this theory, noting that Baxter’s frequent large gatherings during the 2021–2022 academic year did not trigger the fire alarm at the same rate.

“I honestly don’t think we’re doing anything different than last year or much different from any other houses,” Baxter resident Karam Sutham ’25 said. “The max capacity [of the basement] is around 45, but more often than not, I saw at least double than that last year, and it still was fine.”

Donahue noted that the fire alarm has also been triggered by smaller crowds, which further obscures potential sources of the issue.

“There were some instances where it would make sense that humidity could trigger it, but there were some instances where there weren’t a lot of people in the basement and it still went off. So [we] have no idea,” Donahue said.

As Facilities works with a team of engineers to get to the bottom of the issue, Baxter is looking forward to planning alternative, fire alarm-free forms of programming.

“Now that the weather’s warmer, we’re gonna try and do some outdoor events, and maybe collaborate with other College Houses to hopefully throw a couple of fun events before the end of the year,” Baxter resident Eli Franklin ’25 said.


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