A Real-Life Customer Fire Stresses the Importance of Testing & Inspections


In a Midwest residence hall on a mid-November evening, a few college students were cooking dinner on the stove. When it got hot enough, the grease in the pan ignited and caught fire.

Their first reaction was to throw water on the flames in an attempt to put the fire out. While that action would help if flammable solids were involved, water makes grease fires worse by causing explosions.

When the students realized that water wouldn’t work, one grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher in the hallway while another activated a pull station to signal evacuation for the hundreds of other students inside.

By that point, the fire had spread beyond the stovetop and into the kitchen area, damaging the oven and microwave, the kitchen cabinets, and the wall—and activating the sprinkler system.

While this story has a happy—and safe—ending for all, several factors came together to ensure that the fire didn’t spread and no one was hurt:

  1. The students knew how to respond and acted quickly. They may not have taken the correct first step, but they adjusted and knew where to find a fire extinguisher.
  2. The fire extinguisher was working and in the appropriate location.
  3. The pull station was functional and initiated an alarm.
  4. The hundreds of students in the building knew how to quickly evacuate when they heard the alarm.
  5. The sprinklers properly activated.

For nearly eight years, CEC has managed the fire alarm, fire extinguisher, and sprinkler testing and inspection services for this education institution and its residence halls, making sure it was ready for a situation just like this.

As CEC Iowa Test & Inspect Supervisor Tyler Rommel explains, fire alarm testing and inspections involve much more than just placing tags on panels.

“We perform detailed fire alarm and extinguisher inspections,” says Rommel, “and we make sure we functionally test every single device. That involves everything from making sure elevators recall to making sure fire doors shut so smoke can’t spread to different parts of the building.”

Regular tests and inspections also decrease repeated false alarms, preventing building owners from having to deal with smoke detectors that routinely go into alarm mode, resulting in fines from the local fire department.

While you may not be able to prevent fire in all situations, CEC can help make sure the people inside your building have the minutes or seconds they need to safely escape—just like the students in this situation.

Many of our technicians and inspectors have several years of industry experience along with backgrounds in fire, law enforcement, or the military. As a result, they understand the importance and value of life safety and know how to do a thorough job.

Instead of sending only one technician to conduct a “walk test,” CEC sends two inspectors to every inspection. A walk test doesn’t verify that the panel recognizes a sensor within seconds when tripped. For this reason, one CEC inspector tests each device while the other stands at the panel to verify its functionality.

“We care not only about our customers, but also about our customers’ employees and occupants,” says Rommel. “It’s not just the customer that our services protect—it’s everyone who walks into their building.”

After this recent fire situation, CEC Inspector II Kevin Vols visited the residence hall to replace the discharged fire extinguisher students used to put out the kitchen fire.

“They were very happy with our inspections and how everything turned out,” says Vols. “It can be hard to understand how much of an impact this type of work has until something happens.”

Because the team responsible for the residence hall understood the value of being prepared, regular testing and inspections ensured that all systems worked properly when fire broke out.

The situation’s outcome is also a testament to proper training: The students knew where to find the fire extinguisher and understood what to do when they heard the alarm. As a result, everyone was safely evacuated.

In many ways, fire alarm testing, inspections, and training are like insurance. They aren’t used every day, so they’re easy to forget about or set aside. In other words: You don’t realize how valuable they are until you’re in a situation where you rely on these systems and processes to do their jobs. “When something happens, you’ll be thankful that everything works like it should,” explains Vols. “It can mean the difference between life and death.”

Learn more about CEC’s unique approach to fire testing and inspections here.


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