Emory Report

January 26, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 18


Emory's first fire safety director Smith knows her moves

Amanda Smith can't say she dreamed of being a firefighter when she was growing up. "But I've always wanted to wear a big red hat," she added with a smile. And while she may not ride on a siren-screaming firetruck, Smith's job is to fight fires, all the same.

As the University's first director of fire safety, Smith is here to make sure the real firefighters step on campus as seldom as possible. She started Jan. 5 in the position, located in Community Services, and already has plans for turning Emory into a fire-conscious community.

"I've been at Emory almost eight years, and I've been hearing about this position for about six," said Smith, who formerly was director of risk management programs in the treasurer's office. "I'll be looking at fire safety education for departments and schools, and then there will be something more formalized, more systematic. We're very concerned about the human element portion, showing individuals how to get out quickly [in the event of fire]."

For years in her former position, part of Smith's job was to tour the campus with insurance carrier representatives and determine improvements that could be made. With her new job centered around that, she already knows some areas that will get her attention. Safety of persons with disabilities, for instance, will be a top priority, as well as residence hall safety.

"There's not a uniform plan for the campus," Smith said. "There are individual plans that have all been working quite well, but it would be nice to have consistency when you visit departments and schools so we're all under the same mindset."

Not that fire is a big problem at Emory. In fact, in the eight years she's worked here, Smith can recall perhaps a dozen incidences in which she got involved. And often most of the damage was done by water to put out fires rather than by the blazes themselves. For instance, last September water used to put out a fire in the dental school ran down five floors before sprinkler valves could be shut off. Of course, that's much more preferable than fire damage, but it's something Smith will be looking into.

"I will be working with both campus and county officials so that no drastic actions need be taken," she said. "I'm a team player here at Emory for people to come to and say, 'I think there's a potential problem here, Amanda. How can we resolve it?' Because we don't want the DeKalb County fire department coming in and closing down buildings."

Often, important steps are as simple as posting exit signs clearly. For example, in fraternity and sorority houses, Smith said exit signs and lost or misplaced fire extinguishers were a common problem. "You have to kind of weigh it. We were lacking certain signs in some sorority houses, but normally only four to eight people live there," Smith said. "How often are there meetings there? Where do they congregate, in one particular room? It doesn't have to be over every single exit because the members aren't all milling about the house. It's more cost-effective just to do it in that room, where if all the lights went out and people are crawling on the floor and such, they could see it." Now Greek Life facilities are maintained on a regular basis.

Though she is now Emory's resident expert on fire safety, Smith said she grew into her current position much the same way she grew into her risk management job. After completing her two years at Oxford in 1981, she received a bachelor's in business at the University of Georgia and worked for Trust Company Bank and a competing bank in Boston. She then returned to Atlanta-"I just could not keep warm [in Boston] no matter how I tried"-to work for John Portman's architectural firm but was laid off during a large downsizing move in 1990.

"[The layoff] was a little bit of a surprise," she said, "and I was feeling desperate, you know, 'Woe is me, life is terrible, why wake up?'" But then she began volunteering for the newly formed Hands On Atlanta and found a new perspective. "Though I was between jobs, my predicament just wasn't as bad as I thought. I've been volunteering ever since."

Though she doesn't find time to help out as often now that her Emory position is more demanding, she still tries to make it out for a few hours on weekends to prepare meals or to speak to new volunteers at orientation. From the handful of altruistic souls who founded it in 1989, Smith proudly said she's watched HOA grow to 19,500 volunteers.

And when she's not volunteering, Smith found another activity through an Evening at Emory class to keep her busy-and entertained. "A group of us were looking for more opportunities to meet people, and I got into cajun dancing. I've really enjoyed that.

"It's become more and more popular," she said. "You can find cajun music at certain local dance halls and pubs, but the Atlanta Cajun Dance Association is where I've taken lessons and learned more about it than anything." Once every six weeks or so, Smith puts on some comfortable shoes and loose-fitting clothing and jitterbugs the night away to a live band and steaming plates of jambalaya or crawfish étouffée. She's also been known to do another waltz-like cajun step that in a way went against her nature.

"That's where the man leads and the woman follows, so I had to adjust to that," Smith said. "I had a hard time, but I did it."

-Michael Terrazas

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