Smoke Detectors and Burnt Popcorn

Kerry Wilson, Staff Writer

Clung to the ceilings and walls of residence halls around Texas A&M University-Commerce, smoke detectors and fire alarms are the audible and visual call to action during fiery situations – and the inanimate accomplices of, well, everything else.

Smoke detectors and fire alarms have a habit of being set off in residence halls across campus on a day-to-day basis. Calls are made to the University Police Department concerning smoke detectors (on average) twice a day, according to UPD Lt. Jason Bone.

The reason for so many smoke detectors being set off is not due to actual fires, but because of technical problems and students’ use of cooking equipment (ovens, microwaves, burners, etc.) within their rooms.

Michael Stark, director of residential living and learning, said different things set off the detectors, but students burning popcorn is one of, if not, the main reason smoke detectors get set off so much.

“A lot of alarms go off because you take a really hot shower and you open your door and steam comes out and the steam will set off alarms,” Stark said. “We’ve had hairspray set off alarms. We have had people who burn popcorn and that’s the consistent … that’s typically the culprit in food; you are cooking popcorn in your microwave, and you burned it.”

Residential living and learning policy states that students are permitted to have microwaves in their rooms. However, objects such as George Foreman grills are not allowed. Housing staff prefers that students living in traditional style residence halls (not apartments) not cook with anything other than microwaves inside their rooms because of the safety issues.

Stark said the key to avoiding setting off smoke detectors is students paying attention to what and how they are doing things.

“To be safer, they shouldn’t be doing anything else but using their microwave,” Stark said. “It’s paying attention to what they’re cooking and how they’re doing it. If the bag of popcorn says it’s three minutes on high – it’s three minutes on high.”

Stark understands that even though cooking rules might be obvious to students who have lived in residence halls before, for first-time college student, cooking norms might not be as easy to catch on to. During his career, he has seen various accidents occur because new students did not understand cooking rules.

“One of the buildings I had as a hall director, there was a stove on every floor,” Stark said. “We had a student who wanted to bake cookies. For whatever reason, the student put them on a plastic tray that they took from the dining hall, and they put their cookie dough on it and stuck it in the oven. And so yeah – the fire alarm definitely did go off.”

As for resident assistants, the issue of smoke detectors and alarms going off is not a new experience. Phase II RA, Alyssa Vega, said she advises students to watch what they are doing as they use microwaves in their rooms.

“I did deal with an incident in which a fire alarm went off because somebody left their pizza rolls cooking,” Vega said. “Usually, we just tell them to make sure they’re watching it; like, don’t leave it on too long whenever you’re putting the minutes of how long anything is going to take, because that’s usually why anything happens, because they left it in there too long.”