The fire that wasn’t ….


Why is it that when fire alarms go off in an office people call the receptionist to ask if it’s “real”?
Why did the receptionist, who always gets advance notice of drills,  also look around for someone to ask?
Shouldn’t our natural inclination be to save ourselves if we hear a warning bell?   Shouldn’t that innate desire to escape danger kick in without question?
When our alarms went off at 3.45pm this afternoon the phone lit up with internal calls.  Yes, I answered a few instead of running out  ….  – “I don’t know if it’s real”  …  before grabbing my coat and handbag and joining the remarkably orderly exit to the street.
It was freezing out there – our windchill was in the 20/30 range today – it was 70 yesterday!   –  and a lot of people were not dressed warmly enough.
Fairly quickly two police cars pulled up and officers “guarded”  the entrance in-case anyone really wanted to go back to work.   The property manager moved amongst groups telling us that someone had “accidentally”  activated a fire alarm but unfortunately we were not allowed back in until the Fire Department came and declared the building safe.
It was 45 minutes before two fire trucks, complete with sirens blaring,  arrived  –  a good thing there wasn’t a real fire,  though I suspect by that stage they knew they were only coming to declare a building safe rather than to fight a fire.
After the all-clear was given people started rushing back into the warmth.     Some companies had their assembly point across the street from the building and as the people started crossing the street,  a police-woman jumped into the street and started shouting at them for breaking the law (jay-walking).  She told them they had to go to the lights at the corner and stood watching to make sure they did!   Given how cold and inconvenienced we’d been you’d think the police would hold the traffic for a minute while those people came over – especially as she stood there anyway!

It was strange how there were more people leaving our office at 3:45 than came back at 4:30 …….


14 responses

  1. There was a serial fire alarm puller who lived in my dorm in college. He used to wait until around 2:30 or 3:00 at night to pull the thing. It happened so many times that we eventually ignored the alarms and hid under blankets instead of going down and standing out in the cold in our pajamas.

    • Oh, your alarm puller chose a mean time – he wasn’t very bright to do it the same time-frame each time though…. the thrill must’ve gone once you all ignored it.

      We used to live in an apartment block where the alarms went off all the time (electrical faults I think rather than a mischievous tenant) and it got to the stage where I refused to leave until I saw the fire engines pull up and unfurl their hoses. If I saw them connect to a hydrant I’d go down the 9 flights pretty quickly.

  2. We had a similar incident at the college where I worked, at 8 p.m. during night classes, when it was 15 below zero outdoors. The power went out, due to a nearby transformer exploding and catching on fire. The emergency lights failed, so most of us were in the dark unless someone happened to have a flashlight or a really bright cellphone. The faculty had no idea what to do, so they just sent the students outside in the bitter cold. In my case, my car was parked in the back, but the fire doors somehow managed to work and had slammed shut, so I had to go outside and walk all the way around the campus to my car. The pavement was covered in ice, and it was so cold my fingertips froze inside of my gloves. Then there was a traffic jam getting out of the parking lot, and firetrucks and police blocking the roads as they tried to get into the parking lot. It was nightmarish in almost a funny way, though the next day many employees remarked that had it been a real fire in the building, a lot of people might have gotten hurt or killed, since nobody knew what to do.

    I’m glad no one got hurt at your workplace. I probably would have been one of the people who went home in the middle of it all, however. 😀

  3. Being fined for jaywalking is one thing I’ll bet many who work in DC do not know about. Saw it myself once when walking back to the Metro at 19th & K streets. The reaction of the person being cited was along the lines of ‘You’re wrting me a ticket for what?!!’

  4. Even if it’s “just a drill,” aren’t people supposed to go outside anyway so they’ll know what to do in a real fire?

    It’s funny that they called you for info. Even funnier that you answered the calls …

    At 3:45 … freezing … waiting for the fire department … I’m pretty sure I would have just gone home.

  5. One of my job at the university library was to lead the evacuation of the four floors of the library proper. It was not nice to think that we were expected to be the last ones out of the building. The fire safety people expected us to be pleased to be told that we could “probably” last two hours in the stairwell behind the fire doors if need be…

    Always amazed my how people were so slow to react to the alarms. Don’t worry about the phones next time, drill or not, think of self first.

  6. I just watched a survival show and they mentioned this very phenomenon – most people wait for some other cue to tell them that there is actual danger. The information (not sure if it was 100% true) was surprising. I always keep warm clothes in my car although if the alarm goes off I won’t spend more than one or two seconds searching for my keys.

  7. “She told them they had to go to the lights at the corner and stood watching to make sure they did! ” Lol….. just remember they are their to keep the peace even when it isn’t necessary.

  8. We used to have fire drills…unfortunately – or you could take away the ‘un’ – there was a bar within walking distance of our office. Taking that into consideration it was a miracle 1/3 of the people came back, even if the drill occured in the morning!

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