Evacuation Alarm at the Mall? No Need to Assume the Worst


When nuisance alarms evacuated the Cherry Hill Mall on Black Friday weekend, some shoppers panicked. First responders explain why it happened and what to look for in an emergency.

By Matt Skoufalos | December 8, 2022

File photo: Teens locked out of the Cherry Hill Mall after an alleged incident in 2017. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

What happens when you’re in the thick of your holiday shopping and the fire alarm goes off?

Do you scramble for the exits?

Lay low until they kick you out?

Abandon your cart altogether?

Visitors to the Cherry Hill Mall confronted those choices twice in one week at the end of November, including on Black Friday weekend, when a fire alarm in a restaurant attached to the property cleared out the entire premises.

No emergency was ever identified at the property, but in the absence of clarifying information about the incident, anxious shoppers flooded social media channels with fears that the evacuation was related to any number of disasters, including violence.

The ultimate classification of a circumstance like this is a nuisance alarm — that is, the triggering of an alarm system when no threat exists.

One complicating factor in the case of a nuisance alarm at a large property like the Cherry Hill Mall is the patchwork of underlying notification systems that are wired to contact first responders in the event of an emergency.

Over time, as these systems are retrofitted across one another, and throughout the leases held by various businesses, they may miscommunicate information to first responders as a result.

“From time to time, these signals in the systems kind of cross,” said Cherry Hill Fire Chief Chris Callan. “Sometimes, when things get added on, they don’t work together.”

In the case of the alarm that cleared out the mall on November 27, Cherry Hill Fire Marshal Joe Cornforth said the location of the smoke detector itself — a service area in a back hallway at Fatburger — may have been a complicating factor.

After an investigation, alarm provider ADT determined that the Fatburger smoke detector had been replaced over the summer, Cornforth said. It functioned normally when tested by technicians, despite having twice communicated nuisance alarms during the Thanksgiving week. Were the problem to arise again, fire officials would ask ADT to relocate the detector to a different area of the unit, he said.

“There’s no obvious reason why it went off,” Cornforth said. “It wasn’t a bad detector, and it hasn’t gone off since.”

Whatever its origins, the alarm malfunction communicated an order to evacuate the entire mall instead of the restaurant alone, a problem that freestanding restaurants on the premises — such as Maggiano’s or Bahama Breeze, which the fire marshal said have their own alarm systems — do not share.

File photo: Cherry Hill Mall security confer in 2017. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

What may be of some comfort to mallgoers, however, is that a fire alarm is only to be issued in the event of a fire, so if shoppers hear a fire alarm, it wouldn’t be triggered by any other emergency.

Cornforth is unaware whether the mall alarm systems are capable of issuing any other general evacuation order.

“By code, they’re supposed to reserve use of the fire alarm for a fire,” he said.

“If we found out they were using it for other purposes, we’d sit down with them.”

As a general rule, the fire marshal advised that shoppers should familiarize themselves with their surroundings, including exit locations, and refrain from panicking immediately at any alarm sounding.

“When you do hear any type of alarm, take a breath, hear what’s going on, where it’s going on, and what is the message telling us,” Cornforth said. “It’s important that you want to listen to these messages, but don’t be afraid to use your senses.”

Callan further acknowledged that, although a nuisance alarm may be frustrating, officials “wouldn’t want people to question it, especially in a large property.

“In a larger building, it’s much easier for people to dismiss it,” the fire chief said.

Cherry Hill Police Chief Robert Kempf seconded the evacuation guidance offered by Callan and Cornforth; all three also underscored the sound working relationship with mall management and security teams that township first responders enjoy.

Prior to the start of the holiday season, Kempf said authorities met with mall officials to discuss dealing with the emerging threats, increased crowds, and heavier traffic volumes that are common at the property at end of the year.

“We have an increased presence to be a deterrent,” the police chief said. “In terms of real versus perceived threats, I think they’re minimal. It’s a pretty safe area, but like anywhere else, we certainly have our issues.”

One concern that has been alleviated from prior years is the prevalence of large groups of underage mallgoers, which proved disruptive especially in 2017.

Since then, Kempf said that the mall doesn’t allow unescorted juveniles from 4 p.m. to closing during peak holiday shopping season, and that township police are providing an increased detail there to support that policy.

The police chief sympathizes with shoppers who are anxious about their personal safety during the intensity of the season, and understands why nuisance alarms might prove especially unnerving in such a climate.

“With things going on around the country today, that’s a concern, especially with the high rate of false alarms,” Kempf said. “That’s definitely something we should look at, and work with them and our partners [to address].”

Cherry Hill Mall had little to say on the subject.

Senior Marketing Director Lisa Wolstromer offered a written statement that suggested the fire alarm had been triggered by Fatburger “cleaning its grill,” and that the system is “hypersensitive as a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of our visitors and tenants.”

“Irrespective of the severity of the event, once the alarm goes off, signals are sent to evacuate the building,” Wolstromer wrote.

“We are thankful to the fire department for their prompt response, and fortunate it was a false alarm and our shoppers were able to safely re-enter and finish their shopping.”

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