On Dec. 3, an overheated wire stemming from an electrical outlet caused smoke in the Public Affairs Center (PAC) Laboratory. Around ten students were in the laboratory at the time, and were evacuated by the University’s Public Safety officers. The lab is currently open, after being closed for one day, with only the single computer stall currently closed. The University’s Information Technology Services (ITS) is currently working on ensuring the lab, and other University labs, are safe for students.
The spark and smoke in question started when student Anna Lu ’17 attempted to plug her computer charger into an outlet underneath the desk. Lu explained that due to a shadow over the plug from the desk above it, she couldn’t see the outlet clearly enough to discern where to insert the plug.
“My left hand got caught in between the uninsulated wire and the plug system,” said Lu . “When the plug got caught in the uninsulated wire when I was charging it, that’s when it sparked. The uninsulated wire touched the carpet, and that’s when it caught fire.”
Officers from the University’s Public Safety staff arrived on the scene, and soon an ambulance and fire trucks were called to the site. Lu then went to a hospital for assessment of her physical condition after getting shocked by the plug.
Lu noted that because she does not have the University health insurance, it was not possible for her to go to the Middlesex Hospital for a health assessment. She instead went to the Yale-New Haven Hospital, where she received exams to prevent muscle atrophy within her hand from the electrical burn of the wire. Lu is concerned, however, about the cost of the hospital visit.
“I don’t know if my insurance can cover that bill,” Lu said.
Lu notes that the uninsulated wire illustrates serious problems within the structure of the University.
“What are the moral and ethical backings behind an uninsulated wire around the entire lab?” Lu asks.
Likewise, Lu asks how this incident ties into other aspects of the University’s safety procedures.
“As a student at Wesleyan, as a student of color, an underrepresented minority within a STEM field, I am unaware of [the University’s] safety precautions here, as an educational institution,” said Lu.“It’s not safe for students, of any color, to be in a lab where there are uninsulated wires. Period.”
Director of Public Safety Scott Rohde, however, notes that he believes the event may not have been a fire involving an uninsulated wire so much as an electrical cable disturbed by Lu’s plug. He suggests that Lu was trying to plug her cable into an outlet that already had a device in it, and that the security cables there to prevent students from stealing the computers may have caused overheating.
“I wasn’t there,” Rohde said. “I did look at the picture; it looks like the most likely culprit was an electrical cable that probably came in contact when the student was plugging her device into an outlet there and may have created some heat and smoke. I don’t think there was any specific fire damage at all.”
Vice President for Information Technology & Chief Information Officer Dave Baird also explained that the outlets are not meant to be used for students’ personal devices.
“The lab that this occurred in is one where all of the available outlets are used by existing computers and monitors,” Baird said. “So we always advise faculty and students, ‘please don’t unplug any of the things that are in there because that creates work for us, because they’re often not plugged back in.’ Because we know that outlets are a premium there and students are doing this, we had planned maintenance for the winter to actually have some power strips…because the other thing is that nobody wants to crawl under a desk and unplug something. So we’re going to try to make it convenient for students to have some extra outlets to plug into.”
Baird went on to explain the danger behind adjusting or removing these plugs.
“It is kinda dangerous to plug and unplug things when there are security cables, for example, that keep the monitors and the computers from being taken,” he explained. “I believe it is actually one of those security cables that may have contacted the student’s plug when they were plugging it back in….It wouldn’t happen if the thing hadn’t been disturbed.”
Deputy CIO of ITS Karen Warren also notes that ITS will be further assessing the situation.
“I have staff going over there this afternoon and checking it out,” Warren said. “They’re just going to do a review and make sure that all [hanging cables] are up, tied off, or whatever the case may be. We’re going to review any other labs, and we’re not aware of any situation, just as a standard practice.”
Despite the fact that Baird does not consider the event to have involved actual flames, and rather believes it was smoke and overheating, he explained that it is still standard procedure to ensure a fire truck is present after any situation involving smoke or fire.
“We always err on the side of caution, so whenever there’s an electrical issue, we have to determine the extent of it, so the fire department would always respond when requested,” he said.
He also noted Public Safety’s role in fire response.
“I think that emergency preparedness is a big part of what Public Safety does, that includes fire response,” Baird said. “Any time there’s a report of fire we always involve the fire department because that’s not our specialty, of course.”
Lu hopes that this event will help spark a change in the University’s use of funds regarding the safety of students, particularly students of color and underrepresented minorities. As she notes, the majority of the students in the lab at the time of the event were students of color and international students, and she hopes that in the future, the safety of these students will be prioritized.
“I want the university to notice their safety issues, and readjust their funds,” Lu said.
Baird, along with Warren, believes the event was a rare occurrence.
“It seems like kind of a freak incident,” Baird said. “To the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t happened before.”