A couple of weeks ago the fire alarm went off in the office. Last year when we were doing some construction, the alarm went off frequently because of electrical work being done. But we were always given warning a day ahead of time. So this time when the alarm went off I tried to remember, Did someone alert us to this? After half a minute with the alarm still blaring, I went out in the hallway to see what was going on, as did others. Then way down the hall I saw someone gesturing wildly to get out of the building. So I said to those around me, “Let’s get out.” Some started for the front door–over a hundred feet away. I redirected them to the emergency exit fifteen feet away and went with them.
Then just as I was exiting, I realized that as head of my department, I was responsible to get everyone in my area out. So I went back in and made sure everyone under me had left the building. We and dozens of others then made our way calmly to the corporate sign by the front driveway of the building, where we had been told to go in an emergency. Someone told me she wanted to go back inside to get her purse and keys since she had to leave soon. I said no. Within a couple minutes we were joined by not one, not two but a dozen emergency vehicles–fire trucks, ambulances, police vehicles–all flashing their lights and sounding their sirens.
We still could see no smoke or fire, but a half-dozen firefighters got on the roof of the warehouse and the office building. After about twenty minutes of investigation, they discovered that a motor on an air conditioning unit had burned out. The smoke had been sucked into the ventilation system and expelled into the building. It set off a smoke alarm three feet away. After the motor burned out, there was no other fire or damage. So they let us back in.
The good news was that the fire marshal commended us because on arrival he saw an orderly group of people standing together. The bad news was that not everyone left the building immediately. Several just shut their doors so the noise of the alarm wouldn’t bother them. Someone realized that not everyone was outside and went back in to make sure everyone was out. This was especially true in a department whose supervisor was away from the office.
The same week as our episode, Time magazine ran a cover story based on an excerpt from Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable. She offers some helpful insights for what to do during a crisis:
• Act. When disaster strikes, people tend to freeze up. Shock can turn the brain off. Start acting, moving, doing something–it’s almost always better than doing nothing.
• Use the role you have for the benefit of everyone. If you are a leader, lead. Get people out. Give instructions. Delegate. If you have responsibility for a group, take care of them. If you have some responsibility for a portion of space in the facilities, take action consistent with that.
• Give repeated training. No one likes the interruptions of drills, but under extreme stress the brain responds better to what it has rehearsed before.
We learned we need to go over procedures regularly and in different ways to remind people what to do in an emergency. We learned we should assume there’s a problem if the alarm goes off and not be lulled by tests on the system. There’s a natural human tendency to assume, “It won’t happen to me.” Assuming it might, however, can be nothing less than a matter of life or death.