Monday, September 15, 2008

Humor Me: This might not be a drill

By MATT WIXON

When I was in elementary school, Sparky the fire dog would visit occasionally. He was 6 feet tall, bumped into desks, and, in a strange coincidence, wore the same shoes as our P.E. teacher.

But the kids at Horizon Elementary, home of the fightin' Panthers and the occasional lice outbreak, took Sparky seriously. After all, he and his fellow firefighters brought along a message about fire. How quickly it could spread, how destructive it could be, and how a fire could happen at our house, even when we were sleeping.

Yes, Sparky and company pretty much scared the bejesus out of us.

Take, for example, the "stop, drop and roll" thing. It was fun to practice, because rolling on the ground would turn into rolling into each other, which would turn into somebody knocking over a desk. That would turn into a teacher screaming at us and Sparky raising his paws to his cheeks -- creating the international mute-mascot hand signal for "Oh my!"

But then we would realize why we were stopping, dropping and rolling. We could be on fire. It was a traumatic moment, even before we endured the fire-danger filmstrip that included a charred teddy bear.

Thankfully, Sparky and the firefighters did give us ways to protect ourselves from fire. Most important, they said:

"If you ever hear an alarm, get out of the building right away."

It was a message we were sure to follow. At least until we became adults. Cynical, jaded adults who don't believe in Santa Claus, visible underwear or that fire alarms mean impending doom. That's certainly the case when alarms sound in office buildings.

If we're at work, perhaps in the middle of drafting an important memo on corporate use of highlighters, we need more than a fire alarm to set off our alarm bells. We need to see fire engines. And smoke. And employees fleeing with their favorite office supplies and incriminating photos of the boss.

Last year, I heard alarms go off in several office buildings, including the one where I work. The response was always the same. No fear. No panic. Just a few irritated people asking, "How am I supposed to get any work done with these stupid alarms blaring?"

Which is a good point. It is hard to get work done with the alarms screaming in your ear. And the work environment really deteriorates when the sprinklers go off and your computer begins to melt.

That's more reason to leave the building, but everyone just keeps working. We figure the alarm is being worked on, or that somebody accidentally triggered it, or that cellphone ringtones are getting louder and more annoying. Few of us seem to worry that the alarm may suggest, you know, A FIRE. That's why, if there ever really is a fire, the only survivors might be the people taking cigarette breaks outside.

Before that happens, I hope office buildings will replace their alarms with something more alarming than a shrieking siren. Something that will really get people moving, like this announcement over the loudspeaker:

"Attention all employees: Leftover bagels from an executive meeting are available in the parking lot across the street."

That will get people to the exits quickly. In fact, there might be injuries if cream cheese is mentioned. And if the fire is spreading rapidly, the announcement could include bagels and donuts -- and perhaps a promise that the first 10 people in the parking lot won't have personnel evaluations this year.

Empty promises, yes. But even if employees are bitter, they will be safe. And if Sparky were here today, he would tell you that being safe is the most important thing. Or at least he would point to a chalkboard that said it, and then bump into a few desks while leaving the classroom.

Sparky was right, so let's not disappoint him. We all want to be safe, and nobody wants to run extra laps during P.E.

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