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‘Great Escape’ brings reality of fire safety home for Residential Programs and Services staff

Nearly 300 IU staff members took the fire safety training that focused on preparedness and response

Aug 17, 2023

A firefighter from the Bloomington Fire Department supports Residential Programs and Services staff as they crawl through a smoke-filled ... A firefighter from the Bloomington Fire Department supports Residential Programs and Services staff as they crawl through a smoke-filled hallway during Great Escape fire safety training. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Smoke billowed out of a hallway at Union Street Center on the Indiana University Bloomington campus. Thumps and bumps of resident assistants and other Residential Programs and Services staff crawling to safety echoed through the residence hall.

As they clambered through the hallway, encountering obstacles and even a life-like human dummy along the way, the staff called out to one another:

“I can’t see!”

“You’re good! You’re good!”

“Is this the exit?”

“We made it!”

They emerged from the smoke-filled hallway through a stairwell door. Their immediate reactions to the annual Great Escape fire safety training exercise, a collaboration between Residential Programs and Services, the Bloomington Fire Department and IU Public Safety’s Emergency Management and Continuity team, were mixed.

Some staff cheered and high-fived. Others laughed, and some just quietly walked downstairs, reflecting on their experience.

For Parnasi Bandyopadhyay, a resident assistant at Forest Quad, finding her way through the hallway was harder than she expected.

“I was thankful for the people with me,” she said.

A fellow Forest resident assistant, Emma Salzmann, found the experience disorienting and disturbing.

“It felt wrong crawling over the dummy,” she said.

Nearly 300 individuals went through the Great Escape training. It included the real-life experience of crawling through a hallway where smoke machines made it nearly impossible to see, as well as a presentation led by Shari Newcomer, coordinator for Emergency Management and Continuity, and Tom Figola, fire prevention officer for Bloomington Fire Department.

Shari Newcomer, coordinator for Emergency Management and Continuity, shares fire safety information with Residential Programs and Service... Shari Newcomer, coordinator for Emergency Management and Continuity, shares fire safety information with Residential Programs and Services staff. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

The safety training helps Residential Programs and Services staff understand what to communicate to residents about preparedness and how to respond in the event of a fire.

“Our goal is to make sure that staff know what to do in the event of a fire to keep both themselves and as many other patrons as safe as possible,” said Kyle Newnum, environmental management leader for housing operations. “We also cover items for staff to look out for prior to a fire taking place. Informing all individuals about the importance of keeping fire doors closed and keeping exit paths clear is critical and buys everyone precious time if there were a fire in any of our buildings.”

The training hit home for Bandyopadhyay and Salzmann.

“The Great Escape makes it so much more real,” Bandyopadhyay said.

Her takeaway was a deeper understanding of the urgency of responding appropriately when a fire alarm goes off, and she said she feels more prepared to communicate the importance of fire safety to her residents. “There are many false alarms, and people want to ignore them, but fire is a real risk.”

“It’s really important to know that it can happen to anyone,” Salzmann said. “You should always have an escape route and be aware.”

While the smoky escape training made an impression, Newcomer said the real-life component wasn’t required during her presentation. Those who felt uncomfortable or had asthma or other medical concerns were encouraged to opt out.

“We’re seeking to make it as realistic as possible,” she told the staff before they went through. But she said that if they needed help during the exercise, a member of the Bloomington Fire Department would be in the hallway and ready to guide them out.

IU Public Safety regularly leads preparedness exercises on numerous topics across all of IU’s campuses to support staff, faculty and students and maintain safety.

“Providing preparedness and planning resources is a key component of our work in Emergency Management and Continuity,” Newcomer said. “We all play an important role in keeping our campus communities safe by taking part in training and exercises in different areas of public safety such as fire drills, active aggressor scenarios, tornado drills and other areas.”

Fire safety tips

  • Test smoke alarms each month, and change the batteries as needed.
  • Create a fire escape plan and practice it. Know at least two ways out of any building.
  • Close bedroom doors at night. In case of a fire, this will prevent flames and smoke from spreading, give you more time to react to an alarm and keep the room temperature down.
  • If a fire occurs in your residence, get out, stay out and call for help.

Find fire safety information from the IU Office of Insurance, Loss Control and Claims.

Additional resources are available from the American Red Cross.

Author

IU Newsroom

Mary Keck

Communications Manager, Public Safety

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