On April 1, Steph O’Brien ’08 and Lucia Pier ’08 returned home to find a $1,300 Fire Safety violation bill on their kitchen table. While they had a few candles in their house, they couldn’t understand the reason for the seemingly extra $1,000.
“Fire Safety sent us an e-mail in the middle of the next day saying that it had been an April Fool’s joke…the $1,000 charge, that is,” said Brittany Morse ’08, O’Brien and Pier’s housemate.
The Argus obtained the e-mail sent by Associate Director of Campus Fire Safety Barbara Spalding.
“During a fire safety inspection yesterday your house received a common area fine of $1,000 for having candles in your living room and kitchen,” Spalding wrote. “I expected to hear back from you regarding the excessive amount of the fine so I could tell you Happy April Fool’s Day, but since I haven’t I am e-mailing you to let you know that you will NOT be charged the common area fine.”
Morse failed to find the humor in Fire Safety’s prank.
“I guess I might have found it humorous if I hadn’t still been charged $100 for having one piece of incense sitting on my windowsill, and if [my housemates] hadn’t still been charged $100 each for one or two candles,” she said.
Jokes aside, students have expressed concerns regarding the price of individual Fire Safety fines and how the money is used. During this academic year, Campus Fire Safety assessed $39,000 dollars in fines. After $12,000 in fine reductions due to student attendance at Fire Safety seminars or coming before the Appeals Board, Fire Safety has charged $27,000.
Students are charged $100 for minor violations like possessing a candle or incense, a cooking appliance in a bedroom or altering a light fixture. A $500 fine is assessed for tampering with fire extinguishers, disconnecting or covering smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors or hanging items from sprinkler pipes or heads.
Spalding explained, via e-mail, that Fire Safety gives warnings “for white wick candles, tapestries, ungrounded extension cords, things hanging on sprinkler pipes or any other potential life safety hazards,” before issuing a fine.
Certain items are confiscated, like prohibited cooking appliances, ungrounded extension cords and grills found indoors. Students have the opportunity to reclaim these items at the end of the academic year. Candles and incense are taken and not returned.
The current amount set for fines has been in place since the fall of 2006 and was devised by Fire Safety, Residential Life, Facilities Managers and the Dean’s office. The amount was approved by the Masterplan Executive Committee and the Facilities Working Group of the Board of Trustees. Last year Fire Safety violations totaled $41,000, which reflected the increased cost of fines.
The year before the fines were revised, Fire Safety inspections were conducted in less than 50 percent of the student rooms on campus and fines totaled approximately $9,000, wrote Associate Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe in an e-mail.
“Fines for Fire Safety and damages were raised to reflect peer school fines,” Topshe clarified, mentioning Williams, Amherst and Brown.
An Argus investigation revealed that the University’s fines don’t reflect those of peer institutions, as Williams and Amherst use a completely different fining system. No one at Brown could be reached for comment.
Williams uses a three-tiered system for fining. For example, any student found with an appliance with a heating element is first charged $50. The second time this occurs, the student receives a $100 fine, and the third time, a $150 fine. Candle violations begin at $50 and larger offenses like the activation of a fire extinguisher begin at $250. These amounts are less than those of Wesleyan’s Fire Safety.
Amherst charges $100 per candle and $100 for larger offenses like the activation of a fire extinguisher. Amherst also invokes a multi-level warning system, charging students less money for the first infraction and adding more to each offense, if necessary.
“Barbara Spalding has told me many times that she believes warning systems don’t work,” said Mike Pernick ’10, a creator and member of the Appeals Board and the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s Student Affairs Committee Pernick. “She thinks students will break the rules since they know they can get off, which is a cynical view of the Wesleyan student body.”
In contrast, nearby Trinity College fines $25 for candles. Appliances are removed without charge and larger violations, like setting off fire alarms, amount to $75.
Spalding believes the University’s fine prices are contributing to less Fire Safety violations.
“They were set so as to be a deterrent and it seems to be working,” she observed. “This year we inspected 100 percent of student rooms, 26 percent more rooms this year than last year, and had 5.3 percent fewer violations.”
Topshe said that the fine money ends up as general revenue to the University.
“The Campus Fire Safety department is funded through the physical plant operating budget and is not funded through the fines collected,” she described. “If there were no fines collected, there would still be fire safety education and training, inspections and fire sprinkler installations.”
She said that in the last decade the University has invested millions of dollars into fire safety projects in order to make the University safer.
According to Campus Firewatch, an electronic newsletter focusing on campus fire safety, there have been 129 campus-related fire fatalities nationwide since 2000, including 17 during this academic year. About 80 percent of these were in off-campus residences.
“In a college environment where a number of people are living in close proximity, a fire can have a dramatic outcome,” Campus Firewatch Publisher Ed Comeau told The Argus. “It’s important for students to understand why they have a personal responsibility. Students are looking at a dollar-and-cents issue, but administrators are looking at a life safety issue.”
Pernick said he would never defend the high cost of fines and thinks they should be lowered.
“I’ve been seeing the excessiveness of Fire Safety issues every day for the last two years,” he said. “It boggles my mind how little regard there is for fining students $300 and the impact that amount would have on their lives.”
Fire Safety now provides students with an option to attend an awareness seminar to decrease an individual’s fines by $100.
“If they’re going to justify taking literally tens of thousands of dollars from students for something like a candle or a tapestry every semester, they’d better have some really fucking good ’life safety awareness’ training in store for me,” said Matt Leddy ’08, whose woodframe house was charged a total of $1,800 in fines.
Spalding noted that approximately 80 to 100 students have attended a seminar this year. There are two more left before the end of the semester: Tuesday, April 29 at 4:30 p.m. in Usdan 108 and on the day of Spring Fling, Wednesday, May 7 at 4:30 p.m. in PAC 422.
Another means of alleviating the financial burden of violations is the Appeals Board. Created this year, the board includes three student representatives, one Fire Safety representative and one Physical Plant representative.
“In my mind, this is a big accomplishment,” Pernick said. The Appeals Board has returned approximately $4,000 to students who successfully appealed fines.