Graphic by Griffin Mancuso

Cal Poly Humboldt cancels special services contract with Arcata Fire Department


by Dezmond Remington

Once a year for about 15 years, the dorms would crawl with firefighters. It was a summer ritual. Dozens of firefighters, housing staff and paramedics would come to campus and practice the techniques they would use to save countless lives in the event of a fire. That’s not happening anymore.

The university canceled a “special services” contract with the Arcata Fire Department (AFD) that covered everything from those trainings, to campus outreach with students, to having a fire engine on standby at College Colors Day. Everything that wasn’t an emergency call was covered under the label of “special services,” and was paid for by a yearly $37,000 contract. The special services provided will cease Nov. 18, and the university was refunded $23,000.

The cancellation occurred after a false fire alarm at Founder’s Hall in August. AFD billed the university $100 after the false alarm caused them to send a fire truck. Arcata Fire Chief Justin McDonald said the false alarm billing was a new practice that applies to everywhere in Arcata, not just the university.

“It is district wide,” McDonald said. “[We’re] trying to cut down on calls that don’t need to happen. A false alarm takes away a fire engine from being available to respond to an actual emergency or a public assistance-type call. Because the alarm comes in, we have to treat it like a real event, like there’s smoke in the building. You can’t go ‘oh, that could be a false alarm’ and then wait for someone to call it in. That’s not how we do it. We have to treat it like it is.”

In a comment from the Marketing and Communications department, the main cause stated is the risk of running up tens of thousands of dollars in false alarm fees. McDonald thinks that’s unrealistic for several reasons. Every building on campus is treated as its own separate system, with its own alarms and quirks. Although the false alarm fee gradually rises to $500 after enough false alarms, McDonald said he calculated it would take 28 false alarms on the same building for that to happen. McDonald said it only counts as a false alarm if there’s no reason for the alarm to go off. If it senses smoke when there is indeed smoke (albeit no fire), that doesn’t count as a false alarm.

Tawny Fleming, the director of the Contracts and Procurements department, declined to comment. Vice President for Administration and Finance Sherie Gordon did not return requests for comment.

“If we hit $500 in a false alarm fee, you’re not fixing your alarm system,” McDonald said. “It’s having a problem. We’re trying to cut down on malfunction… if we have five alarms in a building, something’s going on. We would work with the Facilities Management and the State Fire Marshal’s office to get the alarm system fixed well before we’ve hit tens of thousands of dollars in false alarm fees… we’ve tried to make sure we’re treating them fairly.”

Another reason the university decided to cancel the contract according to their statement was because they felt that many of the services paid for had not been provided to campus for years. McDonald agrees, though he blames the pandemic for that.

 “Campus was shut down, so they’re not wrong,” McDonald said. “We still provided the service we could, but for a while, there was nobody on campus and buildings were locked because they were sterilized and we honored their wishes of not being on campus.”

McDonald said it was too early to properly predict the effects the special services cancellation will have on students, though he does worry about fire readiness among students and how people might respond in an emergency.

“Where things could potentially go awry… it would be when the university says, ‘Hey, we need to do this training for the residence halls’, or ‘law enforcement needs to do their annual active shooter training,’” McDonald said. “Well, now that’s something we’re going to have to look at, in my mind. That’s something they would now have to pay a fee for instead of having it under the services contract. I don’t see it having an adverse effect immediately. But, if we don’t do interagency training with Housing and the UPD and Facilities Management, that’s going to have a long-term effect on how all the players interact in an emergency.”

Though the end of the special services contract will make connecting with students harder, McDonald said AFD was committed to trying to keep students as safe as possible. 

“Fire prevention doesn’t rest,” McDonald said. “Especially when you have college students in residence halls or apartment buildings… we’ll do our best to continue to reach out to students, because there’s a lot of them out here between Humboldt and College of the Redwoods.”

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