ASU sent text messages Thursday for the first time to notify students and employees about an emergency when a kitchen fire torched the Memorial Union’s eastern end.
The message reached some 3,500 cell phones at 1:56 p.m.
By then, the fire had been extinguished for about a half hour and many of the 60 Tempe firefighters were resting in the shade. A charred red brick stairwell and the smell of melting plastic were all that remained of the emergency.
Arizona State University officials said they didn’t send the message earlier because, after safely evacuating the union, the fire didn’t threaten the rest of the Tempe campus. “They got people out of the building before a text message alert was needed,” said Terri Shafer, an ASU spokeswoman.
In a different type of emergency, like a shooting, Shafer said the university would have put out the alert far earlier.
Thursday’s text message said the union is closed indefinitely because of a fire. Leah Hardesty, an ASU spokeswoman, said the alert was to tell the university community why yellow police tape blocked off the busiest spot on campus — not to warn of danger.
ASU completed its text message alert system in September.
It is one of many universities across the nation that have added emergency alerts after watching Virginia Tech fail to warn its community as a student shot dead 32 people on campus during a rampage that lasted hours.
Tempe firefighters and ASU police responded quickly after emergency dispatchers received a 911 call about the union blaze at 12:48 p.m. More than 5,000 people safely filed out of the building without any injuries, said Mike Reichling, a Tempe fire investigator.
The university’s emergency operations group decided a text message alert would not help with the evacuation or to put out the fire, Shafer said.
ASU’s technology office transmits the text messages, but has no say in when they go out, said Rose Snow, a university technology administrator. ASU’s public affairs office decides when to send the messages and what they say.
“I typed verbatim what the media relations folks told me,” Snow said.
Reichling said investigators believe the fire began on the union’s second floor, but the cause is still unknown.
Workers in the building when the fire spread reported that flames consumed whole rooms, said Stan Bolek, an ASU fire prevention officer. Firefighters initially worried part of the union might have become structurally unsound, but Reichling said that is unlikely.
Regardless, as it burned, witnesses said the fire was menacing.
“Everyone came running, so we came running like hell, too,” said Robert Armolla, a cook at the union. “That smoke, my God, it came barreling out.”
The fire alarms have been blaring without cause in recent months. Jessica Ochoa, a cook at Pitchforks on the union’s first floor, said she knew this alarm was real because of the strong smell of burning walls.
“Burgers don’t smell like that,” Ochoa said.
Firefighters extinguished the fire in less than 25 minutes, Reichling said.
The last fire at the union was almost three years ago when a construction worker was welding an air conditioning unit.
ASU officials said they would decide Friday whether to begin reopening parts of the union that the fire did not damage.
Tribune writers Katie McDevitt and Brian Tumminelli contributed to this report.