On Friday evening, Whitmans’ dining hall operations were shut down due to a smoking electrical appliance in the kitchen. Whitmans’ did not reopen until Saturday evening for regular dinner hours.
The initial appliance causing the disturbance was an electrical soup kettle, according to Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of student dining. The kettle was then turned off and unplugged, however the unit continued to smoke. The manager on staff at the time, Jerry Byers, notified Campus Safety and Security of the issue at 8:50 p.m.
“The Security officers who responded to the scene were able to de-energize the unit. We were advised to activate the fire alarm system,” Abayasinghe said.
“The manager called it into our own dispatch who said that it should be treated as an emergency 911 call and that staff on site should pull the fire alarm. Both the fire alarm and the built-in fire suppression system were activated,” Vice President for Operations Steve Klass said. “The fire suppression system did its job by dousing its targeted area with chemical liquid.” When the chemical agent was released, it also reached the fryer, which caused additional smoking.
The chemical liquid released was a part of the College’s ANSUL kitchen system, which is designed for fire protection. The system is designed as “a mechanism that is in place and will spray down fire retardant in the event the alarm is triggered,” Abayasinghe said. “It activated exactly how it was supposed to. It essentially shut off the gas, shut off the gas line and dumped the fire retardant chemical onto our equipment.” This was the College’s first use of the ANSUL system since its installation.
The Williamstown Fire Department – led by Fire Chief Craig Pedercini – responded to the scene. Heather Main, safety and environmental compliance coordinator, Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services and Klass arrived quickly on scene.
Some employees came into contact with the substance, according to Abayasinghe. An ambulance was called to Paresky at 9:05 p.m. and transported impacted employees to North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH) for further observation. One employee remained at NARH overnight. “The impacted employee did respond well to medical attention and reported back to work the next day,” Abayasinghe said. “We were pretty excited about that.”
Paresky was closed officially at 8:51 p.m. Friday until 9:23 p.m. that same night, according to Dave Boyer, director of Security. While other Paresky operations restarted immediately, Whitmans’ remained closed until Saturday at 5:30 p.m. The use of the ANSUL system initiated a standard cleanup process, which was not completed until Saturday.
“There are a series of steps required by code in order for Dining Services to reopen,” Abayasignhe said. “We’ve practiced scenarios on how we respond to something like this.” This process included the complete wipe-down of all applications within Whitmans’ and the disposal of all food in the dining hall at that point.
However, in just over half an hour on Friday night, Dining Services was able to reestablish service for students in Lee Snack Bar for late night meal equivalency. “The flexibility of our staff helped us tend to the students while also enabling the cleanup effort to take place,” Abayasinghe said. Lee Snack Bar served over 100 students between 9:23 p.m. and its closure at 1:00 a.m. Saturday.
“Between the fire safety teams that responded, the Security team that responded, along with our colleagues in Custodial Services and our staff in Dining Services,” Abayasinghe said, “the response was essentially by the books. It was the best out of a bad situation.”
Klass concurred: “Everyone did precisely what they should have done in response to this emergency.”