Three Days of Alarms, WC Community Abuzz: Emergency services respond to flooding, power outages, and smoke alarms across campus

Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company assesses reports of smoke and fumes. Emergency vehicles responded on Sunday evening around 7:30 p.m. to the Casey Academic Center, where smoke from a burning ventilation motor inside the building set off alarms and forced an evacuation.
- Photo courtesy of Lindsay Haislip
By Emily Blackner, Maegan Clearwood, and Lindsay Haislip
Elm Editors

Thursday: Power Outage

It was anything but a lazy Thursday for Washington College students and staff as an electrical outage caused problems in many College buildings.

Several buildings on the WC campus lost power at approximately 10 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22 after the fuse on a power pole tripped, according to a campus-wide email sent out by Buildings and Grounds. This fuse was one of three that supply power to the College,and when it was tripped, many buildings lost power.

Reid Raudenbush, director of the physical plant, said, “All of the campus buildings except [the] Western Shore, Harford, Chester, Sassafras, and Kirby Stadium were subject to the partial power outage.”

While most students first became aware of the problem after a WACAlert text message or email, some students experienced the effects of the power outage first-hand.

Sophomore Dakota Barrow was in class in Goldstein Hall when students and staff began to notice an unpleasant smell.

“You could smell something was burning. It was noxious,” she said.

Barrow’s professor dismissed the class from the second floor before the fire alarm even went off.

“One of the professors must have pulled the alarm, but my professor had already told us leave,” she said.

The students congregated outside the building while waiting for further instructions.

Raudenbush said that the breaker tripping “caused some three phase motors to overheat and smoke, producing that burning electrical smell. Goldstein and Casey experienced the worst of this, although motors were also damaged in the library and Bunting Hall.”

“A lot of the equipment runs on the higher voltage three phase lines, and so when you lose one phase, you’re basically in a brown-out for that high-end equipment, so you have equipment running with less electricity than required to operate them,” said Director of Public Safety Jerry Roderick.

The buildings were subsequently deemed safe after Buildings and Grounds staff investigated. Barrow’s class was dismissed early as a result.

“We were supposed to take a quiz, but we got back up to the classroom and the professor decided to do it another day,” Barrow said.

Overall, the situation was handled well, said Raudenbush.

“Buildings and Grounds staff have their hands full during these events, and I believe that they acted quickly to protect college equipment and to restore services.”

Delmarva Power Company, which owns the pole with the tripped fuse, responded quickly and restored power throughout campus by 11:30 a.m. Raudenbush said, “I believe that Delmarva responded quickly, in about 20 minutes, and that they made all checks for problems before restoring service.”

At the time, Barrow thought differently. She said, “I was confused and nauseous from the smell. I was kind of frustrated by the lack of anybody who knew what was going on. It seemed like one hand didn’t know what the other was doing.” But, she thought that the emails sent out to explain what had happened helped her understand.

With power restored, the problem seems to be solved. “Delmarva could not find any faults that would have tripped the breaker on our side or theirs, and they replaced the breaker and restored service,” Raudenbush said. “Often, a squirrel or rodent will wander in to a high voltage cabinet and cause this sort of problem. It was recently in the Baltimore Sun that a snake had caused an outage to some BGE customers.”

With the uncertainty gone, students are relieved that nothing more severe happened.

“I’m just glad that everyone was okay,” said Barrow. “It’s an exciting story to tell my parents.”

Friday: Dining Hall Flooding

A throng of hungry students huddled in the rain outside Hodson Hall’s locked doors at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23.

One story above them, dining hall staff was mopping up a half-inch of water from the floor, preparing for what became an hour-delayed dinner.

According to Raudenbush, the small flood was caused after a pizza station sprinkler head was set off by heat from an oven. He said the glass inside the sprinklers breaks at a temperature of around 130 degrees, pumping water from the basement of Hodson Hall at a rate of about 100 gallons of water per minute.

Although there was no fire at the pizza station this Friday, the temperature was still high enough to set off an alarm.

“I was cleaning tables off when I saw the flashing lights and heard the warning. I looked, saw all the smoke and then the water. It was kind of pretty,” said housekeeper Amie Horne.

Raudenbush said that a half-inch of water covered the floor in the brief 10 minutes it took for someone to turn off the sprinkler system.

“If there had been a fire, it’s extremely effective,” Raudenbush said. “If it had been for 20 to 30 minutes, the dining hall probably wouldn’t be open tonight.”

Horne said there were about 10 students along with staff members preparing for the dinner rush when the incident occurred. Students evacuated the building, but the staff stayed to help clean up.

Staff members upstairs pushed water onto the balcony ledges outside, while others mopped up excess water around the pizza station. Downstairs, workers mopped up water that had leaked through the ceiling and onto the floor outside The Egg.

“We did pretty much anything you can probably think of to get water off the floor,” Horne said.

Although students outside Hodson were anxious for dinner, they were not allowed in the building until the floor upstairs was completely dry.

Director of Multicultural Affairs Darnell Parker told students waiting outside that dinner would be delayed until 5:30 p.m., and Dining Hall Director Donna Dhue sent out a campus-wide email alert.

Along with delaying regular dinner hours, the incident moved The Radio Jerocho program, which was scheduled to take place in The Egg at 5:30 p.m., to Hynson Lounge.

“It’s been a busy week for us, that’s for sure,” Raudenbush said.

Sunday: CAC Emergency

Many students whose residences fall anywhere in the vicinity of the Casey Academic Center flocked to the building on Sunday evening to see what all the commotion was about. Fire trucks, police officers, and ambulance vehicles responded to a call from WC around 7:30 p.m. due to an apparent presence and odor of smoke in the building.

Sunday’s incident is directly linked to the brown-out that WC experienced last Thursday around 10 a.m., when one of the three main electric lines coming into campus tripped.

This causes the motors, which ventilate all of the academic and administrative buildings on campus, to overheat and burn up, pumping smoke into the buildings.

As a result of what occurred on Thursday, the College knew that it had lost some of the ventilation system motors, and some were in the process of being replaced.

What occurred on Sunday evening involved a motor that “initially continued to run, but was damaged,” said Roderick.

“By Sunday evening, the damage became apparent when the motor started burning up. When it bruns, it doesn’t catch fire, but it just electrically starts melting down and pumps smoke through the ventilation system down into one room in the CAC; the Forum was the one area that was particularly impacted by this motor,” Roderick said.

Once the smoke began to accumulate in the Forum, alarms sounded, the building was evacuated, and Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company was notified to come out and investigate the building. CVFC showed up in force and determined that the motor was causing the problem.

Once the system was secured on Sunday night, the building was able to reopen under normal schedule on Monday morning.

There was no damage to the building aside from the motor, which was replaced on Tuesday.

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