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Idiot’s Guide to Evacuating a Building


This evening at around 6:43pm, while I was relaxing on my veranda, the building-wide fire alarm went off. It began with a startling blarp! blarp! blarp! then moved onto the more distressing multi-ranged whoop! whoop! signal. At this stage, my fire safety instincts kicked in – I grabbed my keys and phone and left the building.

Like most people, I attended school for 13 years. You may be familiar with the institution – cracking turn-of-the-century brick buildings conjoined with solid assault-on-the-visual-senses additions from the 70s, and a few urine-fragranced demountables thrown in for variation. Ring any bells? No? Don’t worry – I’ve tried to erase much of my school experience from my memory too.


Schools taught us stuff, like numbers and letters and fire safety, the latter of which went like so: if you see or smell smoke, drop to the floor, commando-crawl to the door (my favourite bit), feel the door with the back of your hand, and if it isn’t hot, scramble outside. The actions came with a catch-cry: get down low and go, go, go! We had whole school practice drills, every year for 13 years. These were cause for celebration because we missed out on 30 minutes of class. We enjoyed it so much that we learnt to recite the school’s evacuation procedure before we could tie our own shoelaces.

Leave your bags, file out in an orderly manner, use the stairs, go to the oval, line up with your class, your teacher marks the roll, you hang about for 20 minutes then go back to class and muck around for the rest of the lesson because it’s only 15 minutes till lunchtime anyway.

This is why I grabbed the essentials and bolted. It was the correct response. Right?

Wrong. According to the other residents in my apartment block, you stay inside and continue whatever it is you were doing before the alarm sounded. You do not exit the building. You do not even open your door to check whether there is smoke in the corridor, let alone find out if anybody needs help. When someone from the fire brigade knocks on your door, don’t bother answering. They’re only there to make sure you’re not asphyxiating on the couch. Of course your prime-time TV viewing schedule is more important than ensuring the smoke from your pan-fried chicken doesn’t escape under your front door and activate the central alarm. The corridor is beyond your apartment’s boundary, which naturally means it’s not your responsibility.


So next time your internal fire alarm bleats, ignore it. You are perfectly entitled to carry on with whatever you’re doing – tweezing wings off cicadas or trimming your nasal hairs – because the rest of us will be out in the street, watching the fire trucks arrive and calculating the cost of your kitchen disaster, for which you’ll receive the entire bill.

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