Like many graduate students enrolled in a higher ed program, my assistantship was in Residence Life. I was a Hall Director at my school. I felt extremely lucky to get the position, as I had no Residence Life experience during my undergrad years. My supervisor was making a bulletin board about the staff members and asked us all what our goals for the upcoming year were. I was too new to think of something about building community and inspiring others, so I said what I thought. My goal for that year was to make sure my building didn’t burn down. I had to start somewhere and shelter is a rather basic need. Also, I had heard that my building’s kitchen had been recently renovated due to a fire.
This goal soon became a running joke on my staff. Our department had pretty strict guidelines of what students could and could not have in their rooms with most prohibited items not being allowed because they were deemed a fire hazard. One of my RAs decorated his floor in a way that broke the majority of these rules during the holiday season. Christmas lights? Check. Items hung from ceiling? Check. Lights covered by something? Check. Doors completely covered by paper? Check. I remember asking him if he knew what my one goal for the year was before I made him take everything down. Before I left for weekends away, my RAs would always make sure to say “…and don’t worry, we won’t burn the building down!” You could imagine how much they teased me when I freaked out during our first night time fire alarm (another experience I did not have as an undergrad).
Fast forward to my second year as a Hall Director. I was now in charge of two buildings. I was at an event in one when my phone rang. It was one of my RAs. Now, I’m the sort of person that let my RAs call and text all the time (although I told them to limit late night things to emergencies), so getting a call at 8 pm was not unusual. When I answered, my RAs just said, “Uh…yeah…the building’s on fire.” I sprinted out of the event without telling any of the RAs in the room what was going on.
I met the RA that had called on the street in front of the other building. It turns out that somebody had set something in our building’s entry way on fire. Luckily, it was not a large fire and the fire department had put it out before it could really damage anything other than posters on that wall and a light fixture. The RA that had called had been informed by a student who knocked on the window, screaming frantically. I’m proud of my RA for remaining calm, pulling the fire alarm, calling campus safety, and making sure the students stayed out of the fire lanes. The RA had to do a lot of follow up with the investigating officer, as it had been determined the fire had been started intentionally. Even though the school had been improving security over the past few years, none of the cameras in the vicinity pointed at the entrance to this building.
As word got around campus, my former RAs and supervisor made sure to text me to see how things were but also to joke that I didn’t meet my goal that year. Unfortunately, that fire was just one bad event in a series of bad events that year.
I was very happy with the quick response time for this incident. During my freshman year, I came home from class one day and as I was letting myself into my building, I saw through the window of the building next door that the microwave in their lounge was on fire. I stood outside and called campus safety. I noticed that I did not hear the fire alarm going off in that building and made sure to tell the dispatcher this information. After the phone call, I went inside, upstairs to my room, took off my jacket and backpack, sat down at my computer, turned it on, signed online, and checked my email all before the alarm went off. Even though I had called when the fire was just in the microwave, by the time it was put out, it had damaged the cabinet and counters in the kitchen section of that lounge.
I’m hoping that for my first year as a professional, bad incidents like these aren’t as frequent as they were last year for me. I plan on discussing cooking safety with my students that live in apartment-style housing where they have their own kitchens. The microwave fire I witnessed my freshman year was something that could have easily been prevented.
What sort of incidents have you experienced as a Residence Life professional that could have been prevented? What are some of the goals that you had when starting out?