We recently had a fire drill at work. Which may not seem extraordinary, but this was a Fire Drill Spectacular!
In my company’s US offices, we often have fire drills. Generally, you leave the building, regroup outside, then you’re allowed to back in. Sometimes there is a little reprimand that we (collectively) have not evacuated quickly enough. But there is normally no dog-and-pony show in the US. In the NYC office, the floor fire marshal is former FDNY from Brooklyn, so he gives a longer briefing (filled with digs about the NYPD’s [in]aptitude for handling fire emergencies) — but still, that takes less than 5 min of chit chat. And I think that’s more about the fire marshal having a captive audience in front of whom he can tweak the NYPD, than it is about fire safety. But I digress… US fire drills are nothing to write home about.
Ah, but this was different. Firstly, we’re in a large office park with multiple buildings — some of which my company fully occupies, some of which the company “only” occupies a few floors. This fire drill involved ALL my company’s employees — from all buildings, all floors, all at once. It was a crazy number of people. We were all sent to one side of campus to regroup. It was a rather warm afternoon and those in suits were complaining about the heat on the tarmac, in the sun. After standing around for quite a while, the PA system (!) kicked on and then the show started. Someone who appeared to former military/amateur comedian was on stage — yes, there was a stage! — seeking volunteers. With the MC’s direction, the volunteers acted out how to carry people down stairs during evacuation (2-carriers/1 victim; 1 -carrier/1-victim; conscious victims; unconscious victims; pregnant victims — which was a crowd pleaser, since all the volunteers were men); how to stop/drop/roll; when not to use the elevator (including a line about how getting into an elevator during a fire would instantly turn you into Chicken Tikka); fires basics (fires need oxygen, smoke goes up); how to wet rags to seal doorways/make face masks; highlighting the fact that, in our office complex, no helicopters were going to land on the the (4th story) roofs or pull people out from windows; etc. etc. This went on for at least 45 min. Then the fun started: fire extinguishers.
The MC asked the crowd how fire extinguishers work and he was greeted with silence. Then he said — in all seriousness — that “most” people presume the red cylinder fire extinguishers will automatically explode and put out the fire. I thought he was kidding. But no. A look around showed many of my fellow employees nodding their heads/shrugging in agreement. The MC went into a detailed explanation of the mechanics of fire extinguishers. I was afraid it was rather basic and, frankly, insulting. However those around me explained that they never had drills in elementary school and were never taught fire safety. Practically no one in this crowd of highly educated engineers, scientists, and professionals knew how to use a fire extinguisher. This is was literally the first time they were hearing this. I have to say the MC had people’s attention which was especially notable given a crowd this big, in this heat and standing for what was now approaching an hour. But wait, there’s more…
The MC announced that they were going to light a fire and security would put it out. Then they would seek volunteers from the audience to try. Oh yikes. The risk-adverse professional inside me was slightly mortified at first. But then I remembered my first Chemistry teacher, who made us all use the fire extinguisher. It really was a valuable lesson (especially given all the fires we had in that class), so I warmed up to the idea. Once I resolved my internal conflict, I turned to one of my co-workers who was visibly tense. My co-worker explained that another company across town — NOT my company — had hired some people to do a fire safety demo the year before. Their demo included lowering some one from an upper floor using a rope. They asked for volunteers and got a young lady to agree… then they dropped her. She died. Apparently it was all over the local news. (I later Google’d it — true story.) My colleague was fearing for people’s safety and having visions of the headlines if this fire extinguisher stunt did not turn out as planned. But Mother Nature knew the deal… storm clouds were gathering. Rain was inevitable. How bad could it really be?
The MC narrated the “professional” fire extinguishing, then he asked for volunteers. This time he selected a lady. They torched up the fire again and she put it out. Whew. And of course, the inevitable closer, ” So simple even a lady could do it!” (Ouch. Sigh.) And with that the skies opened up and big fat rain drops started splashing down on us as we scrambled back into the buildings. I would wager a bet that we entered the buildings to avoid the rain faster than we left the buildings to avoid the “fire”.
To sum up: the LONGEST fire drill ever. With the most people. And the greatest detailed. And no one died during the drill. But many people got a fire safety education for the first times in their lives. So, an overwhelming success!