Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Saturday, July 21, 2018

Steam triggers alarm in Hurst

An autoclave, a machine used to sterilize biology equipment by heating water to extremely high temperatures, was not closed tightly enough Monday, causing steam to escape through the opening and setting off a fire alarm in Hurst Hall.

No substantial damage was done, according to Gary Folckemer, coordinator for the Public Safety Administration.

The smoke detector "caused us to believe that there was smoke," said Folckemer. "Something was put in [the sterilizer] and it caused the alarm. It was all contained."

Public Safety officer Kirsten Campbell initially responded to the scene, in room 108A of Hurst, and upon finding what she reported as smoke and a scent in the room, evacuated the building and called the fire department, Folckemer said.

At least three fire and Emergency Medical Service units arrived on campus as the alarm sounded at 4:17 p.m., Folckemer said. Engine 29 arrived at 4:26 p.m., followed by Engines 12 and 20 at 4:28 p.m.

"Usually what happens is one fire truck will respond," Folckemer said. "As soon as there is a report of a fire, they are going to send whatever units are available."

The fire department cleared the building for reentry at 4:47 p.m. Once the scene was secured, Campbell accompanied Biology professor Christopher Toudge and a student to turn the autoclave off, who was the last one to use the autoclave two days earlier, Folckemer said.

"It was just really hot water, just steam," said professor and biology lab director Nancy Zeller, who maintains there was no danger. "Everyone should feel very safe about coming into this building at any time."

Zeller said that steam escaping the autoclave is not unheard of. In the past, a professor was able to hear the autoclave self-alarm and properly adjust it before the fire alarm went off.

Only graduate students and professors are allowed to use the autoclave, Zeller said, and they must be signed in and out. Everyone who uses the autoclave must also go through training, she said.

Several students gathered on the Quad after the fire units arrived on the scene. Many of the students present were evacuated from the building during classes.

"It's an old sterilizer system ... it just goes a little crazy and sometimes it smells," graduate student Maryellen Gleeson said.


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