I was still the new girl in the 15th-floor center city office when the Digital Integration Specialist stuck his head into my cubicle.
“Fire drill today at ten o’clock,” he said.
I was oddly pleased to carry this ritual of my elementary school days into my career – the welcome break from the day’s work, the shuffling in line through the hallways with our ears plugged against the alarm, the waiting on the grounds while our teachers counted us, and the knowledge that should disaster befall the school, we’d know what to do.
But about ten minutes before ten o’clock, everyone in the offices and cubicles around me began putting on coats.
The assistant account executive on my left explained. Fire drills happen every six months, and since the elevators are out of service during the drill, instead of walking down fifteen flights of stairs, everyone flocks to the elevators and goes out for coffee about ten minutes beforehand.
Once we crowded into the hallway outside the office suite, the company president took charge of loading the elevators. After I stepped out of the building and crossed the street, I watched the entrance, which was teeming like a flooded anthill. Twenty floors of office dwellers had done exactly what we had. Soon the faint, totally unheeded screech of the fire alarms could be heard over the noise of the city.
After the fire drill (such as it was) concluded and the workers crowded back into the elevators, I stayed behind to ask the concierge about it.
He said that he is a former fire marshal, and he shook his head with helpless, long-lived frustration at our response to the drills.
He explained that they have actually made some recent progress by setting the alarms to ring throughout the exercise, as the firefighters check each floor. Previously, office workers would refuse to interrupt their work for the drills, and simply stay at their desks throughout. Now, the prolonged, ear-shattering noise drives them out.
Once I returned to my floor, I asked our office manager what he thought of our studious avoidance.
He shrugged and eyed me with what could have been a hint of annoyance. “I think anyone who’s sane would make sure to go down in the elevator,” he said.
I wondered how sane we’d all feel if a fire we explicitly refused to prepare for caught us in the middle of a meeting.
But sometimes, one man’s disaster preparedness is another man’s disaster.
As Hurricane Sandy approached last fall, my apartment complex’s superintendent was determined to protect the four-story building he manages. According to one of my neighbors, he noticed a tiny old chimney of sorts in the building’s roof and worried that the rain would get in. So, as tree-snapping winds approached, he chained a ten-pound metal gym barbell to a piece of wood and used the contraption to block the hole in the roof.
The weight flew right off the roof on the wings of the storm, and demolished the windshield of a car belonging to a resident who is handicapped. The hurricane blasted into her vehicle all night, filling the interior with broken glass and soaking the dashboard, before the accident was discovered. I’m very sorry my neighbor’s car got smashed. But I’m thrilled that the weight hit an empty car, and not any of the people, including my husband and me, who frequent that parking lot in all weathers.
I’d hazard a guess that disasters are defined by our perennial unwillingness to anticipate them in any reasonable way.
In 2011, my computer crashed, and I lost a majority of my files. I wept with rage. But had I anticipated this fairly common occurrence by backing up all my documents, the crash would have been an inconvenience instead of a crisis.
I know – it’s crass to compare the loss of my files to something like a tsunami or a tornado. And of course, many true disasters are wholly unpredictable. But if my former office building were to catch fire, the episode would hardly be called a calamity if well-practiced staffers filed quickly and calmly out the door. If panic and ill-informed escape routes led to injuries or deaths, it would be a different story.
Having totally failed to visualize the reality of hurricane-force winds, my superintendent’s notion of preparedness was placing an unfastened barbell on the roof. My subsequent sense of intellectual superiority probably could have powered my fridge, had my electricity gone out (I’m convinced it didn’t because of my ready stash of batteries, flashlights, charged gadgets, water and non-perishable food). But when I followed everyone else in the office to exit the building by elevator ten minutes before the fire drill, did that add up to a smarter way to prepare for disaster?