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Alert employee sounds alarm

By Pamela Jackson | | September 23, 2010

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It helps to pay attention during the ‘mandatory’ training classes offered because people may need to rely on that training sooner than they think.

As schools and child care centers across the country prepare to celebrate National Fire Prevention Week scheduled for Oct. 3-9, the Child Development Center here has a reason to celebrate even more.

It was business as usual at the CDC Aug. 4, when Shernita Bynum, lead technician, CDC, Marine Corps Community Services, smelled an unusual odor coming from the school age classroom she had just entered.

“I walked into the classroom where the afterschool program was being held and smelled a smoke-like, burning odor,” Bynum said.  “I wasn’t quite sure if that was what I smelled so I went to get the director for a second opinion.  She said she could not smell anything due to her allergies and sinuses, but told me if I was sure I smelled something burning, to go ahead and pull the fire alarm.”

Dorothy Bryant, director, CDC, MCCS, said she told Bynum to be sure before she pulled it because everyone was coming in response to the alarm.

“I pulled the alarm, told the secretary to call 9-1-1 and immediately began to evacuate the children and staff from the building,” Bynum said. “I had recently attended fire prevention training as the fire warden for the CDC and one of the most important things we learned was to always be aware of unusual smells. Part of my job here is to maintain and ensure a safe environment for the children and staff, so to be safe, I did not second guess my sense of smell.”

She said in her training, they were taught different scenarios, to include one where someone smelled something unusual, but ignored it and that person’s house caught on fire and burned down. 

As it turned out, one of the belts in the air conditioning unit had caught fire, which is what she  smelled.

“Employees around the base are trained in fire safety based on their building occupancy,” said Rodney Staley, fire protection inspector, Marine Corps Fire Department, Public Safety Division, MCLB Albany. “In these training classes, we stress relying on your senses and instinct when it comes to smells.  Ms. Bynum made the right decision to pull the alarm, which averted injury to the children and staff at the CDC and property loss to the government.”

He said the air handler belt located in the ceiling above the classroom had overheated and started to burn. 

Bynum remembered from her training, just because she is the only one who can smell something unusual, doesn’t mean it (smell) does not exist, Stanley added. 

“The fact she made the decision to pull the alarm and call 9-1-1 so quickly, even though she was unsure, makes her a hero in my book.  When she pulled the alarm, it shut down the air handler, which prevented a bigger fire,” he said.  “The information she was able to give to fire and emergency personnel over the telephone helped us to find the location and resolve the problem faster.”

Staley encourages all employees not to wait or ignore unusual odors, but to pull the fire alarm if they suspect or smell something out of the ordinary. 

Once the alarm is pulled, a signal goes to the police department and is sent out as a master fire alarm with evacuation, which means everyone including the police department, fire department, emergency medical services and public works responds.

“Too much is better than not enough and we (fire department) would rather respond and not be needed, than to respond when it is too late,” Stanley said.

Bryant said it made her feel good to know she has an employee who is sharp and concerned with the safety of the children and staff at the CDC.

“She has been here a very long time and I am grateful to her for making a good call.  I accepted her judgment because we are all accountable for keeping the children safe,” Bryant said. 

Bynum said in her 22 years working at the CDC, she had never experienced an incident like this and encourages other employees to rely on their wisdom and other senses in cases like this.

“Sometimes you can think a situation is OK, but it’s not.  I am just thankful I received the fire prevention training, but never thought I would need it this soon,” she said.


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