I vividly remember the grade school fire drills. Every class walked quietly in single file order from the buildings to our designated gathering area while Sister Mary Rambo stood with a stopwatch waiting for the last straggler to emerge from the pseudo burning building. The teachers would take roll in the parking lot and amazingly we never lost a single student in these disasters.
Then Sister Mary Rambo would lecture that it took 2 minutes to clear all of the buildings, and we need to improve it to 30 seconds. This would lead to an afternoon of fire drills until we mostly ran screaming from the buildings in no particular order, teachers stopped taking roll, and Sister Mary Rambo labled the drill a success, even though several first and second graders lay trampled somewhere inside the buildings.
At some point, either Sister Mary Rambo or a local fire chief lectured us on the dangers of burning buildings. We were encouraged to rely on our training when the alarm went off. It didn't matter if we didn't see a fire or smell smoke; the all-knowing alarm was not to be trifled with. Run, I mean, walk in single file order and ask questions later.
And so the drills went on, all the way through high school where we looked forward to the ten minutes of free time. In college, the dorm may well have had fire drills; I don't know. (I was probably in class!) Regardless, some dorm residents did an excellent job of keeping us drilled by setting off the alarm every Friday and Saturday night at about 3:00 a.m. So we would trudge down ten stories to the parking lot until we heard the all-clear signal. I think the only reason we even bothered was to see which guys/girls came out of rooms of the opposite sex.
Many times I longed to stay in bed, but I remember the lesson from that fire chief from years ago: just because you can't see or smell it... Finally, one day I was walking down the hall, and a friend said, "Man, can you believe those idiots last night?"
"The guys that set the fire. You know, the fire alarm."
Apparently, I had managed to sleep through a fire alarm which was tripped by some idiot who set someone's door on fire. Yes, a real fire. I was shaken, yet immensely proud that I could sleep through a fire alarm. And so could my roommate! With him being unreliable, I resolved that I may burn to death in the dorm at some point. But that's better than burning to death in a sixth grade classroom. You know, college activities and all.
Fast forward to my professional life where answering the fire alarm depended on how bored you were. Management would eventually appoint floor fire marshals to ensure you left the building. But if you held your ground and told the fire marshal, "I'm way too busy for a fire! I'm working on the Underwood contract!" then management generally had your back if you'd rather work and burn to death.
Last week, I was in a hotel nodding off while watching my nightly dose of cartoons. The hotel had a nice atrium where you could spit from in front of your room to the lobby six floors below. Suddenly, a fire alarm goes off. I sigh and curse my bad luck at some kid yanking on the alarm. Except it doesn’t stop. After ten minutes, I decide I better investigate. I walk out into the hall and look at all the other guests standing in the hall looking around. This confirms my suspicion: a kid on a dare. When the alarm finally stops, I go back to bed.
Ten minutes later, the alarm goes off again. Well, the hotel system must be broken, I figure, and this should entitle me to a free night's lodging. And a room upgrade. But then I hear sirens. I wander back into the hall. Gazing into the lobby I see six firemen decked out in gear, carrying axes and oxygen tanks, storming the lobby. Okay, is this real? Now, I know I shouldn't take the elevator, but I'm four flights up! Is it worth going down the stairs? Sister Mary Rambo appears on my shoulder and screams at me: Yesssss! Then she slaps me with a ruler.
But the firemen slow down suddenly and don't appear to be in a hurry. A group of them go into the elevator. If they're using the elevator, that's a good sign. I decide to stand firm. I then see the firemen walking down the sixth floor hall and in a few minutes they suddenly appear on my floor. I’m not sure how to act. When I realize they see me, I move quickly toward the stairs like I’m evacuating. I wave at other guests and make comments like, "Let’s go! We gotta go!"
I salute a fireman as I brush by, stopping to ask, "Do we need to leave?"
"The alarm's going off."
"Yeah, I know," I say. "But no one else is leaving, and I don't see or smell anything."
"Neither do I. That's why I'm up here." He moves away from me.
"But shouldn't I assume the worst? I mean this place could just explode."
"Yeah, it could."
I run after him and tug on his coat. "Look, just say the word and I'm outta here. Single-file, quiet, ready for roll call in the parking lot."
"Hey, I'm fightin' a fire here," he says.
"So there is a fire?"
"I don 't know. Leave me alone and I'll find out."
"I love you guys," I say, trying to befriend him and show some appreciation for his heroism.
He raises his ax menacingly and glares at me before walking down the hall.
I found out later there was no fire, just some smoldering wiring in the elevator shaft (I used the stairs the rest of my stay there). Is there a lesson here? Yes. My third-grade self would have said, “Go! Move! Get out! Stay safe! You may not see or smell it, but it will kill you!”
But as for the cynical, adult me—well, I'll most likely burn to death.