It wasn’t a drill, but we still got screwed

For once, the high-pitched screech that reverberated around the office wasn’t the sound of the twangy, hyper-talkative Southerner telling everyone the latest news about her new hobby of coupon-collecting. Blessedly, this time, it was the sound of the fire alarm, warning occupants that the building was about to erupt in an inferno.

Let us be grateful for simple gifts.

My workplace has excellent plans in place to ensure the safety of employees in the event of fire or other calamity. Just like everything else we do here, there is a standard operating procedure and there is a checklist. According to the Emergency Action Plan, a 300-page tome kept on the wall next to the exit that I guess we’re supposed to read before we run screaming in flames from the building, there are numerous “attachments” that describe in detail our proper response. Number 10.4 is the “fire/explosion checklist.” Number 10.7 is the “earthquake checklist.” Number 10.13 is the “suspicious package response policy.”

I haven’t actually seen any of these checklists, but I imagine just about all of them end by making the same point:

√ Try not to die. If you do, be sure to have your survivors contact human resources to update your status to reflect this Qualifying Life Event.

Then there’s the unofficial procedure for handling the periodic fire drills we stage, and this we all know by heart. A strange woman from another department appears, removes the action plan from its place by the door, studies it briefly before making a few notes, then huddles with the department manager to make sure this is a convenient time to have everyone go stand outside for five minutes. If it’s not convenient, if we’re working on a pressing deadline for a high-profile client, the drill will be delayed.

I only hope potential terrorists are considerate enough to do the same scheduling check before striking the nuclear power plant located about seven miles away.

Everyone sees this routine happening right in front of them, so we all know a fire drill is imminent. Many find this is a convenient time to take a coffee break at the diner down the road, and will clock out and leave to avoid the exercise. Everybody else gathers their valuables and their coats, exits whatever embarrassing web page they’ve been browsing, and patiently waits for the screech to begin.

When the alarm went off mid-morning earlier this week, none of these preliminaries had taken place, so we were a little suspicious it might be the real thing. We headed briskly for the exit and gathered in the pre-appointed patch of grass, as much to get as far away as possible from the shriek as to save ourselves.

It was a cold, misty morning, and we shuffled our feet and clutched our arms close to our chests to keep warm in the chill. A few people speculated they were certain this wasn’t simply a drill, because the company wouldn’t be thoughtless enough to send us outside in such inclement weather. This gave everybody else the opportunity to get their blood circulating with a hearty laugh.

People gathered in clumps of three and four, to spend a few minutes talking with their real friends instead of having to endure the inane chit-chat they’re used to engaging in with their cubicle mates. The less sociable folks gravitated toward the exterior of the perimeter, pretending to check their cellphones for messages. A few people lit cigarettes for an impromptu smoke break, despite the fact that on page 179 of the action plan, subparagraph 8.6.2 explains that the evacuation could be in response to a natural gas leak, in which case smokers will blow themselves and those around them to Kingdom Come.

After a few minutes of standing awkwardly in the grass, wondering what was so special about this particular wet plot of ground that we were required to stand here and not over there on some perfectly good (and dry) concrete, we heard the sound of an approaching siren. Up the street came a fire engine, lights flashing and horn blaring. The driver pulled up near the front door, and several firemen hopped out to meet with the site manager and safety officials who formed the welcoming committee. In another minute, an official-looking car with “Fire Chief” printed on the side dipped briefly into the parking lot, then U-turned out, apparently convinced his managerial talents weren’t worth wasting on a building that remained unconsumed by fire.

The important people talked to each other for a few more minutes, while those of us who were the would-be victims waited across the way in the relative safety of the early-spring storm. Finally, the manager looked in our direction and wheeled his right arm in a broad windmill motion, indicating it was safe for us to return to our work stations. Like an eager herd of sheep, we ambled across the parking lot and back indoors to resume our work.

It was “all-clear” for us to once again debate the relative merits of an em-dash versus an en-dash to set off a subjunctive clause in a proxy statement that nobody was going to read anyway.

We heard later that there was a genuine cause for concern that prompted our evacuation. Somewhere back in the warehouse, a lighting ballast had emitted several puffs of smoke before burning completely out. A worker had promptly shut off power leading to that fixture, and any remote prospect of danger had evaporated almost immediately. But it hadn’t evaporated as quickly as the smoke, so procedures required that we go stand in the rain, I guess to make sure we were fireproofed.

Unlike those who enjoyed their cigarettes during the drill, the ballast will be cited for smoking, and the violation of corporate policy will be referenced during its next performance review.

Nature's sprinkler system protects workers by drenching them

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