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Student spills drink in outlet, causes smoke

A fire alarm that was activated in the Newman Library Building around 1 p.m. on March 13 caused lots of confusion among students in the building.

Following the incident, students who were in the library reported different accounts of what had happened. Some reported that the computer caught on fire, while others claimed that there was smoke coming out of the computer.

Arthur Downing, Ph.D., the vice president for Information Services and dean of the Library wrote in an email interview, “A library user sitting in a computer carrel on the third floor spilled a drink that travelled into the electrical outlet in the carrel. There was no fire, but the contact of the liquid with the electrical connection brought down the outlet and produced some smoke with an acrid odor.”

Although the computer itself was not the source of the smoke, all computers that were connected to the outlet were removed as a safety precaution, said Downing.

The alarm system was activated automatically as a result of the smoke.

According to Downing, after the activation, the campus fire safety director made an announcement that the reason for the alarm was being investigated. However, some students at the library reported that the public announcement system was incomprehensible and was the cause of subsequent confusion.

Because students did not understand the announcement, they did not know what to do or where to go.

Downing said the library staff was prepared for a possible building evacuation, which would have been managed by the Department of Public Safety.

However, Public Safety gave the “all clear” for the building to remain operational. This was because the issue had been isolated to the carrel on the third floor and the affected outlet had been turned off and thus did not pose a risk.

“[Building staff] were sure that the problem was due to the spilled drink,” Downing wrote.

The decision was also confirmed by the New York City Fire Department, which later arrived at the scene.

“I can understand if some students and staff were concerned during the brief period when the alarm was triggered and the source was still being identified; the sound of the fire alarm coupled with the electrical outlet can be stressful. The appropriate protocols were activated: the alarm sounded, public safety and building staff responded immediately, and the library was prepared for an orderly evacuation if necessary,” Downing wrote.

“The system worked as designated.”

March 20, 2018

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Maria Markowicz


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