Hugh Jass 
   
     






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Yesterday I had the fortune of being in a high-rise building when the fire alarm went off.
Most of my employers have been in multi-story buildings in downtown Austin, so I am used to the occasional fire drill. But yesterday was no drill, the alarm went off due to a real fire. This is the second time I have had to react to a real fire alarm, but it was the first time I was in a high-rise building near the 20th floor. If you have been in any fire drills you know that most high-rise buildings have some sort of plan for how you are to exit the building and where you are supposed to wait for a headcount. So, when the alarm goes off for a real fire, one would think that things would proceed in much the same way as they did during the drills.

Unfortunately though, this is not what happened when the fire drill went off yesterday. No one panicked or did anything odd, but the exodus from the building took a lot longer and had a few more variables then I had witnessed in the fire drills.

"At the rate we were going, I was becoming clear that we would all probably burn up with the building long before we got out."


When I have been in fire drills in the past, they were well-planned events with specific dates and times. Before the fire drill everyone is reminded about how to get out, how to behave, and where to meet for the headcount. I didn't realize it, but a planned fire drill may actually be a bad thing. Since the people in the fire drill have advance notice and clear and consistent direction, the drill goes off very smoothly and everyone gets out quickly and ends up at the specified location intact. But this is not what happens when there is an unexpected fire drill, and I think its because people just react.

When I heard the alarm I waited a few seconds to see if it was a test or not. After 3 cycles of the deafening claxton it was obvious this was a real alarm, and I grabbed my keys and headed out of the office and to the staircase.

Upon arriving at the staircase I was thwarted by the Floor Cop. The Floor Cop is this annoying woman that works on our floor and has nothing better to do than to spend her day telling everyone about what they are and are not allowed to do. Well, she was at the staircase in her best form and trying to tell me that we should not just bolt down the staircase until we find out if this is a real alarm or not. Unsurprisingly, I found myself wanting to mutter the same phrase to that woman I want to say everyday - 'go fuck yourself lady'. But no words were exchanged - this was a fire drill after all, and the best course of action was to be calm. I looked the the Floor Cop with disdain and then flung open the staircase door and started down. I could hear her unsubstanciated objections in the background as I cleaned the first flight of stairs, but my thoughts were fixed on getting out of the building.

Two more flights of stairs passed without incident before I caught up with some other folks. There were two flights of stairs per floor and I had left on floor 21. This meant I was only around floor 19 at this point, and there was slow moving traffic in front of me that would affect my descent. Well, 'slow my decent' they did. After we managed to click off two more flights of stairs I realized that we were going painfully slow. The stairs were only wide enough for two average-sized people shoulder-to-shoulder, so it was almost required that we had to decend single-file. Somewhere around floor 17 I had this realization about what was going on and what it all meant.

It dawned on me that regardless of how the fire drills of the past have gone, a real fire alarm is a completely different animal. Things were not as orderly as the drills, and people all went different directions at different times. For instance, if we had been in a firedrill, my time to get to the 17th floor in this alarm was about the same to get out of the building all together.

At the rate we were going, I was becoming clear that we would all probably burn up with the building long before we got out. As we managed to get down 2 more floors the pace was slowing to a crawl. With everyone in the staircase packed up so tight I finally managed to see the cause of the excessive slow down - it was a very round man.

I knew that this poor guy was actually only part of the problem. He was not holding up everyone in the entire building, but he was the first rolling roadblock between the 20th floor and where we were.

It took a very long time to get out of that staircase. There were a number of very large people, and a few of them looked like the trip down the stairs had caused some physical damage. I felt very bad for them, but was struck by the futility of the fire alarm.

If there is a fire alarm in a high-rise building you have a very high probability of dying depending on where you are relative to the fire. It only takes one person to slow everyone in the building from exiting in a timeley fashion. I now know that the speed in which everyone goes down the stairs in a fire alarm is the speed of the *slowest* person in the staircase.

Don't worry though, there are some really easy ways we can remedy this situation.

First off, close all the gyms and yoga places, and have everyone in your building start exercising on staircases so that the rest of us do not have to die when there is a fire.

Or, perhaps we just need to paint an express lane in the stair well.