’Fire Hazard’ confiscations mobilize angry students

Many students have recently expressed their displeasure with the College’s policy concerning fire hazards and what some term the “unfair seizure” of items from hallways and common rooms.

For the first three weeks of the academic year, custodians placed items that were deemed fire hazards in common rooms. However, this posed a problem for custodians, since they would be held responsible for the replacement of stolen items. Since then, items violating the firecode have been moved from the dorms to the Buildings and Grounds (B&G) office. B&G has also created pink Post-It notes to inform students that their items have been confiscated and will be available for pick-up from B&G.

In an e-mail to administrators, Daniel Mevorach ’03 expressed his “disappointment at the precipitous and unfair [removal] of my boots from Thompson hallway.”

“I am certain that you have misinterpreted both the spirit and the letter of the law which you claim obligates you to remove the personal belongings of students,” he wrote.

Citing Massachusetts fire code (527 CMR 10.03), Mevorach said he believed that his boots and the other shoes of his peers did not pose any safety risk to students if there had been a fire, since they were “neatly arranged along the hallway.” (The code states, “Any obstacle which may interfere with the means of egress or escape from any building or other premises, or with the access to any part of said building or premises by the fire department in case of fire, shall be removed from aisles, floors, hall, stairways and fire escapes. Doors designated as exits shall be kept clear at all times.”)

Jennifer Nail ’03, whose crutches were removed from outside her door by custodians, agrees with Mevorach. “I think we should be able to leave shoes in the hall, if only because we will need to put them on if we have to escape quickly from a burning room,” she said. “Also, because I don’t think we should have to track mud into our rooms.”

“Obviously we shouldn’t leave large items like skis, suitcases or bikes lying around, but a few pairs of shoes, or a single crutch, aren’t going to hurt anyone,” Nail said.

What lies at the heart of student complaints is not safety, but the way in which items are being removed from dorms. “I can understand that the fire marshal wants to keep the hallway clear of items, but it seems that they have become rather extreme in their enforcement of this rule,” said Nail.

“When a nameless and faceless person comes by while you are out, removes your property without so much as leaving a note, it can do nothing but foster ill-will,” said Grey Maggiano ‘03.

“Certainly your current practices are not consonant with the usually amicable relationship[s] between students and the administration – they cause resentment and you would be well-advised to end them,” wrote Mevorach.

He suggested that “if [custodians] must remove offending obstacles, it is certainly more reasonable to provide open access to them, perhaps by relocating them to another area in the dorm and to post notes informing students that there property has been moved” rather than forcing them to walk to B&G to reclaim their items.

“I can understand concerns about the enforcement of the policy, but it is equally important to emphasize the need to maintain a safe environment for all of our students,” said Irene Addison, interim facilities director.

Acknowledging student complaints over this issue of fire hazards and the removal of property, Joseph Moran, College fire marshal said that he is willing to do whatever is necessary to resolve this matter, whether it be building shoe racks for common rooms or providing easier access to removed items. But he also emphasized that safety must come first. “Tell me what you think – I am open to ideas,” Moran said.

For clarification, Moran cited the Student Handbook, which states, “State Law requires that hallways be completely clear at all times. This means that you cannot store anything in these areas (examples: shoes, clothes racks, boxes, furniture, and bicycles). The Williamstown Building Inspector and the Williamstown Fire Chief enforce these regulations. Items left in halls may be removed and held at Buildings and Grounds.”

Moran explained that items must be removed from hallways in order to ensure a clear exit and to avoid injury during a fire. Also, items, like shoes support combustion, thereby posing an even greater risk to students’ safety.

He said that it is not like there are only two pairs of shoes in the hallway; two pairs of shoes suddenly turn into fifteen pairs.

Referring to fires at Seton Hall University and in Warwick, Rhode Island, Moran said, “it’s hard to believe, [but] it doesn’t take a whole lot [for a building] to be engulfed by flames and burn.”

This evening, there will be a demonstration in Thompson to show students the difficulties associated with navigating a smoking hallway.Moran said that he and B&G are to doing their best to create a “safe environment” for all students.