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Trouble alarms jangle nerves, scramble technicians across campus

– Trouble alarms have been sounding in buildings around campus since last Friday, driving workers to distraction and scrambling technicians to try to stifle the beeps and root out their source.

The campus fire alarm system remains fully operational, UC Berkeley police stressed, and anyone who hears a fire alarm should evacuate the building and contact UCPD. The problem is with the alarm system's self-diagnostic and monitoring system, which began malfunctioning around 1 a.m. Friday morning, often signalled by repetitive beeping from the main alarm control panel in buildings.

According to Cliff Frost, director of Communication & Network Services, the problem originally was thought to be a fault in the SBC phone system serving campus, in part because such faults have caused similar problems in the past. But upon further investigation, Frost said, "Our No. 1 suspicion now is that it's a glitch in part of the monitoring hardware itself, a central part of the controller that polls the alarms via phone line."

When the trouble alarms started going off around campus, technicians from Physical Plant-Campus Services and Communications & Network Services were dispatched to manually silence the beeping. (To report a trouble alarm problem, staff should call the PP-CS call and business center at 642-1032.)

More than 50 errant alarms had been reported by midmorning Monday, said PP-CS spokeswoman Jennifer Lipscomb said. PP-CS electrical and fire alarm crews worked throughout the weekend on the problem, and were continuing to reset alarms Monday morning.

By late Monday, technicians had changed their focus from the phone network to the monitoring system hardware. They switched the alarm controller over to a backup monitoring system, and the errant alarms faded away.

"It looks like things are pretty calm right now," Frost said Tuesday morning. He said only a handful of trouble alarms had been reported overnight, and all the annoying audible alarms that had been reported had been silenced.

Although Frost said it was too early to know for sure what the fault was, technicians were working on the main alarm monitoring system and hoped to have it back in service soon.

According to Sheree Wiezer, UCPD's manager for security and access control, when the monitoring system went haywire, the only way to silence a beeping trouble alarm was to have CNS and PP-CS technicians physically unplug the main alarm panel in each affected building, then plug it back in.

"We're not very comfortable with instructing them to do that [unplug the panel]," Wiezer said, "but for those alarms that are audible, we are sending PP-CS and telling them to do what you've got to do."

UCPD Lt. Jim West explained that the problem lies in the alarm system's monitoring function, which is designed to send an electronic "handshake" via phone lines once a day to the police department's alarm control center to signal that all is well. For some reason, some of those handshakes failed to complete, beginning early Friday, alerting UCPD to a problem in the system and triggering the annoying beeping in the buildings themselves.