I realized today that people just don’t care about fire alarms anymore. I was at my bar review course just a minute before we were scheduled to start a riveting lecture on Real Property when a strange honking sound and flashing lights went off. It was a fire alarm and not having heard it before in that particular building, everyone kind of stood still with a puzzled look on our faces until it sunk in. OH! FIRE! No wait, it was more like oh… fire? Meh. It was only one minute before lecture after all and we do not need anything prolonging the torture of easements, adverse possession and fee simple determinables!
I was on my way to the ladies room to get some paper towels for the orange I planned on eating during class. Did I let some blaring fire alarm stop me? Nope. I got my paper towels, sat down and waited for the alarm to abate. I looked out of the 6th floor window to see if I could spy a group congregating outside or fire trucks pulling up – the usual signs of a fire but also the usual signs of a benign fire alarm too. Having done my check, I felt alright just sitting down and waiting for the damned honking to go away.
Only about two people started packing their things and looking toward the door but even they didn’t move with any sense of urgency or real concern. After about 5 minutes, the honking stopped and the light was off. I felt pretty good about myself having correctly deemed the alarm a fluke. Unfortunately I was sort of wrong. The alarm did turn out to be nothing but someone did come into the classroom and ask us all to evacuate the building. I was annoyed at first but just happy to be on the 6th floor and no higher. They turn the elevators off when the fire alarm sounds, remember?
As I stood outside, looking around, I laughed to myself. There I was at a law school with a bunch of people studying to become licensed attorneys and we were basically giving the middle finger to FIRE. Not what Mr. Reasonable Person of tort law fame would do, that’s for sure. We stood there, assuming all kinds of risk, possibly endangering ourselves and others. I thought to myself: people have no respect for fire alarms anymore. What happened?
Remember when you were in elementary school and fire drills were big time? Seems like there was one every week as we learned the proper way to behave in the event of a fire emergency. One learns that fires are serious business with a specific set of rules for exiting a building and what to do once you are safe outside:
Line up. Sometimes single-file, most often in two lines so that you can have a buddy to look after. Be quiet. No talking. Move quickly. Don’t stop for the water fountain or to grab your coat from the locker/coat closet. Look for your teacher. Gather far enough away from the building. Be present for roll call. Stay together.
Did you know that in New York State (where I experienced the bulk of my life’s fire drills) it’s a misdemeanor for failure to comply with Section 807 of the state Education Law which mandates fire drills? Section 807 says, in relevant part:
The principal or other person in charge of every public or private school or educational institutional within the state (except colleges and universities) must instruct and train there pupils on how to exit the building in the shortest possible time without confusion or panic. The instruction must be in the form of drills or rapid dismissals.
A minimum of 12 drills must be held each school year, eight of which shall be held prior to December 1.
If a building is equipped with fire escapes, four of the required 12 drills must be through the use of these fire escapes. Instruction must be given to pupils in the procedure to be followed in the event a fire occurs during lunch period, unless at least one drill is held during the lunch period.
Failure to comply with Section 807 is a misdemeanor punishable at the discretion of the court by a fine not to exceed $50.
So how come almost every adult I know is super nonchalant about fire alarms? I blame college.
I lived on campus both freshman and sophomore years. At Carolina, the bulk of students stayed down on South Campus in high-rise dormitories. I don’t know about the rest of campus but South Campus dorms were crazy reckless with fire alarms. Sometimes it was some insomniac or late-night studier burning popcorn in one of the full kitchens located on each floor. Other times, somebody was shitfaced drunk and felt the best way to get sober really fast was to set a lounge sofa on fire. Boredom probably accounted for 89% of all false alarms. Whatever the reason, being awakened at 3 or 4 am on a Tuesday was not the move.
In the beginning, we dutifully exited our rooms. I had a suite-mate once who packed a mini bag every time the alarm went off. No way was homegirl leaving her laptop and whatever else she couldn’t bear to lose to flames. We’d all stomp down the stairs (6 or 10 flights depending on which hall) in a half-asleep stupor. When we reached the bottom, we’d all gather on the basketball court and wait. One huge pajama-clad mass wiping crap out of our eyes while sneaking peeks at what everyone else wore to bed.
After a while, we just got tired of going downstairs. Rumor has it that if you were caught in your room during a fire alarm, you would be fined. Firemen would randomly dip into suites to see if anyone was inside. That scared us in the beginning (no college student can afford a fine AND the wrath of the Housing department) but we soon decided that sleep and comfort were more important. Besides, there was hardly ever a real fire! Hell, even if there were a real fire, I doubted that a 3rd floor smoky microwave was going to have a huge impact on my 6th floor, cinder block-enclosed bunk bed. That, my friends, is when we learned how to sleep through a honking fire alarm.
There’s no doubt that people take fire alarms more seriously when they go off at their homes or when they have children. Fire alarms in large buildings like schools, offices, etc., just seem like more of the same South Campus bullshit. I think if an alarm went off at my job tomorrow, I’d just think something was malfunctioning or on the fritz. I would need some verification or another sign that there was indeed an emergency situation going down. I’m talking announcement here folks, not hot door handles and smoke inhalation, by the way.
Clearly, fire alarms have come to represent an inconvenience that we regard with skepticism rather than a serious indicator of possible danger. Pretty crazy considering I often rank burning alive in my top two ways to die. When’s the last time you took a fire alarm outside of your home seriously?