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New alarm system is operational

A new emergency alarm system is now fully operational in the buildings around Killian Court, capping a two-year construction and testing effort.

The systems are used in the event of fire, chemical spills, gas leaks, explosions and bomb threats. They were installed in two sets; Phase 1 included Buildings 2, 4, 6 and 8, while Phase 2 covered Buildings 1, 3, 5 and 10. Building 7 received a fire alarm facelift before and during the Rotch Library renovation several years ago and therefore wasn't included in this project.

Although the eight buildings now have similar modern systems, Phase 2 buildings have two additional features: prerecorded digitized voice and ADA strobe lights. The digitized voice is an electronic female voice that automatically announces an emergency in the building and instructs occupants to evacuate. The ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) required strobe lights are white compared to the red ones installed in the first phase. Phase 2 buildings have both.

The female voice is required by state building code because it has been found to be more calming during an emergency than a male voice. Although it sounds like a tape recording, it is actually computer-chip generated. A computer monitors all devices in the system and transmits abnormal data to the Physical Plant Operations Center in Building E19. The center dispatches appropriate tradespeople to check on abnormal signals. When necessary, they alert Campus Police, the Cambridge Fire Department and the Physical Plant Emergency Response Group.

When the new systems were being tested, the emergency messages sometimes were difficult to understand, largely because of the buildings' architecture. Marble walls, concrete ceilings and terrazzo floors tended to make sound waves ricochet, while open lobbies and atriums acted as echo chambers and garbled the words. Physical Plant made adjustments such as reducing the volume of the horns and messages as much as building codes would allow. If a verbal message is hard to understand, the Safety Office recommends stepping into a nearby office or classroom and shutting the door, which will dampen the sound and make words easier to understand.

Although loud alarms in an adjacent building may make people think they must leave, the Safety Office says there is no need to evacuate unless the emergency lights on the horns in their own building are flashing. However, people should not walk along a corridor from a "non-fire" building into or through a "fire" building; strobe lights over the entrances to such buildings provide warnings not to enter.

Questions concerning technical aspects of the fire alarms may be directed to Physical Plant's Electrical Services at x3-6351. Those with questions on evacuation, building codes or fire regulations can call the Safety Office at x3-4736.

A version of this article appeared in the January 5, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 18).

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