What is it about a fire alarm that makes normal people lose touch with reality? Much like George Costanza running out of a children’s party bowling over a clown and an old lady in a walker on Seinfeld, there is something about emergencies and alarms that make people revert back into this “me first” mentality.
I was reminded of this yesterday when our building was evacuated due to an environmental issue related to asbestos. The initial evacuation went quite well, with nothing more than the typical “Aw crap, now I need to walk down the stairs for nothing.” sort of comments.
As one of the volunteer emergency wardens, I was stationed at one of the doors with several others acting in the same capacity — all of us wearing our dorky day-glo orange safety vests. Yes, I know we look dorky but it is an important role nonetheless so I accept it.
This is where the “people lose touch with reality” come in to play…
At one point we had seven emergency wardens and a couple members of campus security blocking the doors. We had several hundred people spread out over the lawn and the main floor of the adjacent buildings. There is a fire alarm sounding, complete with bells and sirens. People still felt the urge to confidently walk up to the doors and then look shocked when they were turned away. “Huh? Is the building closed or something??”
Acting in a professional capacity I fought the urge to respond with “Look, dude. Let me give you some advice. If you can’t figure that out you’re pretty much wasting your money and time here at university.” Instead, I gave a polite and non-sarcastic answer, which is strange territory for me.
Now, if this happened once or twice, I could chalk it up to people too busy listening to their iPods to actually pay attention to the world around them. Heck, earlier that same day I was so engrossed in updating my Facebook page as I walked up the stairs I completely missed the tenth floor and had a rather shocking run in with the chain-link gate which blocks access to the roof. But, this was not a rare occurrence, we’re talking likely a couple dozen people doing this to us.
Another common question: “Was this a planned drill?” Yes, because the C.F.D. always dispatches several pieces of apparatus with lights and sirens to planned fire drills.
It gets worse.
TWO HOURS after the alarm first sounded there were still students coming down from the upper floors. No idea what they were doing that was so important, but whatever it was they choose to stay inside a building while the alarm was sounding that entire time.
The Fire Department needed to send air samples away for testing to determine if the building was safe to occupy. We were told this process would take a minimum of four hours. Rather than having all of the wardens guard the doors, it was decided Campus Security would simply lock down the building. One of the doors didn’t properly latch and the minute the door was left unattended we had more than a dozen students walk on into the building, again despite the fact that the fire alarm was sounding.
I don’t know about you, but unless I am there as an emergency responder, fire alarms mean GET THE $^&$^ OUT! What is with these people?
So, Campus Security has locked down the building and word is spreading that there will be no access for several hours. This leads to a line of people all asking the same thing: “Can I just go in and grab my keys?” Gee, people, I didn’t think “No access” was that hard to figure out, but apparently it is. When told they would not be given special access to get their keys, or their purse, or their iPod, or to go finish writing up their lab notes (seriously!), most people had the same reaction: “But, it’s only on the second/third/seventh floor.” Oh, that makes all the difference! I’m sure a modern HVAC system would not have spread the contamination throughout the entire building!
Now, lest you think I am picking on our student population, the real kicker came from a story I heard from one of the other wardens. A member of the faculty, upon being told that the Fire Department was telling us no one is allowed in the building responds with “Ah, the fire department can go to hell!”
I’m glad I wasn’t there or I may have lost it at that point. My reaction would have been something similar to this: “Can I get your address? I’d really like to have it on file in with the dispatchers so when you do something stupid like shove a cigarette into a planter filled with peat and set your house on fire they can tell YOU to go to hell. Do you seriously think the F.D., being trained professionals, were sitting around the station today and said ‘Hey, let’s go randomly close down some building for several hours just to annoy people?’ No, they are there to do a job so I suggest you let them do it. I’ll tell you what, we’ll let them decide what is best in an emergency situation just as they’ll let you decide what is best the next time they decide to try and come up with a unified theory of physics.”
C’mon people — not paying attention to a fire alarm is just plain stupid. I’m not sating you want to “pull a George” and run out in a panic bowling people over because that doesn’t help either, but whether you think it is a drill or not, get out of the building and then get out of the way. You don’t need to stand right next to the building after you come down the stairs — not only are you in the way of those still coming out, you’re also in the way of those who need to get in. (I won’t even bother mentioned that in a fire situation you don’t want to be standing there if windows start blowing out.)
Staying inside a building during an evacuation, or entering it after the building has been evacuated, wastes the resources of the emergency responders. Just because it is called a “fire alarm” doesn’t mean everything is OK just because you don’t smell smoke or see flames.
Let’s all use a little common sense , shall we?