Shoeless and shivering: Freshmen share their fire alarm blunders
I was convinced that I would make it through all of last semester without experiencing a fire alarm. While friends had complained about multiple fire alarms, I boasted that, despite being in the most populated building, I had never had to deal with one.
At 3:15 p.m. on Dec. 17, 2020, just two days before my flight home, my Zoom class was interrupted by a piercing noise—the fire alarm. In my hurry to leave, I left my Zoom camera on and forgot both shoes and a jacket. A few minutes later, my suitemate joined me, her hair soaked from the shower she had to hastily jump out of. The cause of the chaos? Someone had burned food in a microwave on the third floor of Umrath.
Seeing students gathered outside of a building during a fire alarm—some without coats, some without shoes, some half asleep—is a common sight on the South 40. Because of COVID-19 and online classes, students have spent more time in their rooms, increasing the likelihood that they may need to evacuate their building due to a fire alarm. Four freshmen share fire alarm stories from their time on the South 40.
The sleeping suitemate
Freshman Jake Oscherwitz is a light sleeper. His suitemate, freshman Vinay Viswanathan, on the other hand, enters a “comatose state” when he sleeps. Every morning, Oscherwitz can hear Viswanathan’s repeated alarms through the wall. Oscherwitz rarely checks the time in the morning: When he hears his suitemate’s first alarm, he knows that it is 8:30 a.m. When he hears the next alarm, he knows that 10 minutes have passed, and this continues in 10-minute intervals until his suitemate finally wakes up.
Viswanathan’s heavy sleeping tendencies had never been more than a lighthearted joke between the two suitemates. However, his habit of snoozing through alarms became potentially dangerous on Dec. 4, 2020, when the fire alarm was set off at around 2:30 a.m. in Lien House.
Oscherwitz woke up to a piercing sound that interrupted his dream. Disoriented, his first thought was, “Am I going to die?” before making the connection that the strange sound was the fire alarm. He quickly sprinted out of bed and threw on two sweatshirts. Covering his ears, he ran through the connected bathroom to check on his suitemate, who was still in bed, fast asleep.
“I’m shouting at him, shaking him,” Oscherwitz said. “After like 30 seconds, there was nothing. He just turned over. I kept shaking him for another two minutes, and he was just out.”
Oscherwitz realized that his efforts were futile. Though he did not know if there was an actual emergency, the lack of smoke in the air gave him enough confidence to leave the building without his suitemate. Once outside, he glanced around, hoping to see his suitemate, but Viswanathan never appeared.
Viswanathan had been up until around 2 a.m. studying for an exam, and he had probably only been asleep for a few minutes when the fire alarm went off. When he awoke the next morning, he learned about the incident while checking his phone.
“There was a video of everyone outside of Lien, and that was the first time I had heard about it. I was so confused,” Viswanathan said.
Oscherwitz filled him in on what happened, but Viswanathan did not blame Oscherwitz for leaving him behind.
“He definitely did not have any ill intentions of leaving me to die…If there was a blazing fire and [if] there was smoke, I would trust that he would wake me up and get me out,” Viswanathan said.
Pink socks, Lady Gaga and a fire alarm
Freshman Maddie Hoffmann hates shoes. For her, shoes are “too much work.” Whether she is wandering around her building or walking to the clock tower to pick up food, she avoids wearing shoes as much as possible. While Hoffmann admitted that rarely wearing shoes is a bad habit, her dislike of shoes had never been a problem until Jan. 27, when the fire alarm in Koenig House suddenly went off.
On that Wednesday afternoon, Hoffmann was in the elevator, coming back from dropping off her laundry. As usual, she was not wearing shoes, and she was blasting “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga through her AirPods. At first, she assumed the noise was a “weird beat” in the song. She soon realized that what she had thought to be a peculiar musical choice by Lady Gaga was actually Koenig’s fire alarm.
But by the time she understood what was happening, Hoffmann realized that she did not have time to go back to her dorm, and she headed for the exit with just pink socks on her feet. Unfortunately, it had just snowed, and Hoffmann stood on the wet ground in the 20- degree weather as she waited for the fire department to arrive.
“It felt like forever. It had been at least 10 minutes if I had to guess. They took their sweet time getting there,” Hoffmann said.
Luckily, there was no fire. Upon returning to her room, Hoffmann turned on her shower, soaking her feet under the hot water until the feeling in her toes returned. Despite the miserable experience, Hoffmann is stubborn in her ways. She still hates shoes.
“I’ve decided to ignore the signs the universe is giving me, and I will continue being the way that I am,” Hoffmann said.
The mid-quiz fire alarm
Before starting every quiz and exam in her chemistry class last semester, freshman Mary Falstin was instructed to hold her calculator, periodic table and formula sheet up to her computer screen. Falstin and her fellow students often had to wait five or more minutes for the professors to check each item through Zoom, during which students would try to calm their nerves and bring their focus to the task at hand. Once the assessment began, the students hoped that everything would go smoothly in the unfamiliar online setting.
Unfortunately for Falstin, everything did not always go so smoothly. On Oct. 28, 2020, at around 11:20 a.m., the fire alarm suddenly went off in Eliot B in the middle of one of Falstin’s chemistry quizzes. Once she realized that finishing the quiz would be impossible under the circumstances, she decided to message her professor through Zoom before exiting her building. The possible implications of leaving the Zoom call mid-quiz added to Falstin’s stress.
“If you get up from your computer, they are going to think that you’re going to get something or look at something, so I was stressed…that they were going to think that I was cheating,” Falstin said.
Luckily, the professor allowed her to take a make-up quiz that night at 8:30 p.m. This second quiz had different questions and was harder for Falstin than the original quiz. Falstin was also upset that she had been completely unprepared for the event.
“Most of the time right now, we’re not really in a controlled setting or a controlled environment, so literally a multitude of things could happen, but we were never really given direction as to what to do whenever anything like that happens,” Falstin said.
This wasn’t the only instance of frustration that Falstin had with her chemistry class last semester. After her suitemate tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks before Thanksgiving, Falstin spent multiple days in communication with Habif to figure out what to do, giving herself no time to study for her chem exam. She asked for an extension, but the department denied her request.
Falstin’s frustrations in both situations were not due to the inconveniences themselves, but in the lack of leniency that she was given, considering how COVID-19 has significantly impacted and restructured college life.
“We’re accommodating when they’re not prepared, but they’re never accommodating whenever we’re not prepared,” Falstin said.
While black and white checkerboard flip-flops would normally be a stylish accent to an outfit, freshman Charlie Shaw learned that they are not the ideal shoes to wear during a fire alarm. On Dec. 2, 2020, Shaw woke up at around 2:30 a.m. to the screeching sound of the fire alarm in Eliot B.
“I’m sitting there in my boxers, trying to debate whether or not I actually have to get up, or whether or not I’m hallucinating the noise,” Shaw said.
After 30 seconds, Shaw took action, throwing on jeans and a sweatshirt. They also put on the nearest shoes they could find, which happened to be their checkerboard flip-flops. Unfortunately for Shaw, it was about 20 degrees outside.
“It was just late enough that BD and Paws & Go had closed, so they were all locked up,” Shaw said. “There was nowhere to go, so we were just sitting in the cold.”
For between 10 to 15 minutes, Shaw waited for the fire department to arrive, regretting their choice to wear flip-flops in the chilly weather of a St. Louis December night. Once allowed to return inside, Shaw wanted nothing more than to crawl under their warm blankets and go back to sleep.
Throughout the whole experience, Shaw never felt panicked; in fact, the sweatshirt that they had grabbed on the way out was a casual “afterthought.”
“In the past, we’d had a couple other [fire alarms] that were because people burnt popcorn or something small, where it hadn’t been an issue,” Shaw said, who never learned what caused the fire alarm.
Since then, Shaw’s building has had a fire drill, but it was pre-planned. They made sure to plan ahead for the next drill so that they didn’t have to go out in flip-flops again.