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When the fire trucks show up in the middle of the evacuation, that should be your clue that it’s not a drill…

December 11, 2010, 7:29 PM

So I’m a little bit annoyed. Yesterday afternoon marks the second time I’ve missed a fire alarm at work on account of being out to lunch. Let’s admit it – building evacuations on account of a fire alarm of unknown cause are kind of exciting. First there’s the system aspect of it. The Wheelock NS horn/strobes and Wheelock RSS strobes in my office building come to life, and start making a Code-3 pattern and start flashing. That right there is always cool, since these devices are, for the vast majority of the time, silent fixtures on the wall, which I’m sure many forget about. But then there’s the other part of things, and that’s where a little suspense and excitement comes in. The building might actually be on fire! After all, if you don’t get out quickly, the fire might get you, and no one wants that.

And as mentioned, this is the second time in a row that the fire alarm has gone off this year that I’ve missed. And for anyone to miss it, it would be me. I’m just the person with the Wheelock 7002T on his desk, after all. Both times were during what we call “Schumy Lunch”, which is where a bunch of us go out on Fridays to have lunch. The first time was in August, and we were out at Logan Tavern, about two blocks away from the office. We saw a fire truck go by during lunch and didn’t think anything about it, until I got a text message during lunch. Turns out that hey, the fire alarm went off. Put two and two together, and aha – that fire truck was headed to our building! As I understand it, it was an accidental alarm caused by maintenance work. It happens, I suppose.

Then this one on Friday was caused by construction work. They’re renovating the small fitness center that’s in our building, and, well, they presumably tripped a smoke head. Oops. We got back from Schumy Lunch at Chipotle in Dupont Circle, found out coming in that we missed a fire alarm by about ten minutes, and found out what the source of the alarm was. My first reaction was being annoyed that I missed another one, and commenting that they need to stop accidentally setting off the alarm while I’m out of the building (and waiting to do it when I’m around). Then I suggested, in jest, “Can I just pull the alarm so we can do the evacuation with me?” They said no, and I was like, “Darn!” in that I-knew-that-was-going-to-be-the-answer kind of way.

Getting back up to the office, however, I heard the term “fire drill” being tossed around a little bit more casually than I would have liked. See, a fire drill is an event planned in advance. This was what is commonly referred to as a false alarm, or more accurately, an “accidental alarm” or “nuisance alarm”. The reason I draw the distinction is because the alarm system is responding correctly to conditions that it has detected, but the conditions detected were directly caused by human error, and it was not a malicious activation. Malicious activations, i.e. where someone pulls the alarm knowing that there’s no fire, are “false alarms”. These were obviously accidental.

For planned practice evacuations at work, i.e. fire drills, I have told everyone that if I know of a planned fire drill, I will let them know well in advance, giving them as much warning as I get from the building management, since I don’t believe in surprise fire drills (especially not for adults). I have told them that if the alarm goes off and I didn’t say anything about it beforehand that it is not a drill. After all, the purpose of a fire drill is to familiarize building occupants with the sound of the alarm and with where evacuation routes are, to give floor monitors an opportunity to start throwing people out in a controlled situation (vs. the real thing), and to familiarize everyone with where the designated assembly area is located.

Then I got around to the coffee station, and noticed something very familiar sitting on the counter. It was red, had a trim plate, and said “FIRE” on the top of it. It was my Wheelock 7002T. And there was a note on it:

My Wheelock 7002T, with a note on it.

My Wheelock 7002T, with a note on it.

The note said:

Dear Office Mgr Schumin —
You disappoint us, young fire marshal. Your negligent absence during today’s drill leaves us no alternative but to relieve you of your duties.
— Dennis L. Rubin

Seems I have been pranked again by my coworkers, since Dennis L. Rubin, the DCFD Fire Chief, would not come up to the office to tell me that I was negligent for being out of the office during an unplanned fire alarm – and writing it on a sticky note and putting it on a fire alarm signal to boot. Needless to say, I got a huge kick out of the whole thing, and made sure to get lots of photos of the alarm in the hallway before placing it back on my desk.

So there you go, I suppose. Maybe next time I’ll actually be there when everything goes off again.

Web site: Discussing evacuation response and surprise fire drills and such. Seems these people think that a surprise fire drill is a Bad Thing as well...

Song: For those coworkers of mine wondering what that Wheelock 7002T horn/strobe on my desk sounds like, here is a video of that alarm in action, sounding in unison with two other horns. The horn/strobe now on my desk is the one in the center of this group.

Quote: And yes, offices can burn, as the people at the First Interstate Tower in Los Angeles in the late 1980s can attest.

Categories: Fire alarms, Work