Verbum Ultimum: In Case of Fire

How the College can make the bonfire more safe for students to come.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 10/13/17 12:45am

The Homecoming bonfire is a quintessential Dartmouth tradition, but it is also a dangerous one. With the bonfire, after all, comes the yearly calls for first-years to touch the fire. If nobody does, the class is dubbed the “worst class ever” — a title that seems to have enough of a negative connotation that no class in recent institutional memory has been risk-averse enough to claim it.

Dartmouth’s staff has the difficult job of maintaining the bonfire tradition while keeping its students and alumni safe from the flames. While the student-led tradition of touching the fire is frustrating for the College, the tactics it uses to keep students away need improvement. The metal chainlink fence that surrounded the bonfire this year made safety punitive rather than compassionate. By putting the fence so close to the fire, it seemed to make it difficult for students who attempted to touch the fire to get away safely from the flames. The added challenge — both for students attempting to touch the fire and for security personnel — potentially added more risk rather than mitigating it.

Students will try to touch the fire in spite of whatever measures the College puts in place, thus the College should prepare for the inevitable by designing safety measures that allow law enforcement, Safety and Security and emergency workers to take action while maintaining the safety of students. Interim director of Safety and Security Keysi Montás told The Dartmouth that, were the fire to fall down on a nearby person, “it would be a certain death.”

Touching the fire is a tradition that is likely to last. Since students’ institutional memory is short, injuries of the past are soon forgotten. No matter how unfathomable running up to and touching a massive bonfire may seem to those who have never been Dartmouth students, the action carries enough weight that every year there will be those who are willing to risk their well-being to do it.

This year’s bonfire strengthens this point. Even with a tall metal fence surrounding its perimeter, multiple people still attempted to touch the fire, and a few succeeded. While the College can hope that it will create a deterrent large enough that students will not even try to get through, the fact that a significant fence could not stop students from shows that the College needs to create safety measures that factor in student attempts to bypass those same measures — and prepare the safest option for when they do.

There are two main measures the College and Hanover can take to deter students successfully from touching the fire. The first is a short-term solution — a barrier designed more conscientiously, and with student behavior in mind. A fence built further away from the fire could help. If students inevitably cross the fence and end up alone with the fire, they would be able to escape heat and the flames when trying to escape. Safety and Security could then be less in the way of the extreme heat. In this way, the College would maintain its safety measures — and successfully deter most potential fire-touchers — while keeping the students who do cross the barrier safe.

A second, long-term measure is to de-emphasize touching the fire. Students led the charge against the unofficial Dartmouth Indian mascot and can do the same against other traditions if and when they are harmful. Student Assembly, with an email to campus about the risks inherent in the bonfire, provided a strong example of student-led safety initiatives.

But by restricting its warning to an email, which many students likely did not read, Student Assembly limited the reach of its message. The Assembly referenced an incident in 1999, when Texas A&M University’s bonfire collapsed during construction, killing 12 students and injuring 27. If multiple student groups highlight the potential dangers to many exacerbated by touching the fire, student voices can lend legitimacy to a message both the College and Hanover hope to spread.

Of course, the simplest solution would be to get rid of the fire entirely. New town and state laws led to the elimination of Tubestock. The Homecoming bonfire, hopefully, will not suffer the same fate. It is a symbol of the Dartmouth community like no other and a critical bonding moment for first-year students; it is, arguably, the point at which they truly become one with the College’s community. The tradition brings alumni spanning decades back to their alma mater, supporting the College and the local economy. One way or another, the bonfire is here to stay.

With this in mind, the College should thoughtfully consider how it protects students from the bonfire.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the opinion staff, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.