Leonard Armstrong

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Fire Alarm

Fire Alarm

My wife and I live on the 17th floor of a high-rise condo building. Around 12:30 this afternoon I was working in my home office, unshowered and in pajama pants and a tee shirt, when the building's fire alarm went off. Like most building fire alarms it is loud, obnoxious and generally annoying. Plus, in between ear-grinding buzzes there is an electronic voice declaring "An emergency has been identified in this building. Please exit by the nearest fire exit stairway. Do not use the elevators."

After wishing the building management a somewhat unpleasant afterlife and screaming as many expletives as I could string together, I changed my pajama pants into sweat pants (clearly, an upgrade) and a hoodie, threw on slippers (the world did not deserve to see me in hard soles) and started down the square spiral of corrugated steel stairs toward the street. My wife was out and thus did not experience this trek. 

For about the first 7 or 8 flights no one else was in the stair case. Did the condo units above me have dispensation from exiting? Was I dreaming? Was I in The Twilight Zone? Did everyone else simply do what I was only considering and say "Nope, not leaving. If there is really an emergency I'll trust the fire department to do their job?"

After 8 floors I finally saw other people descending. There was a man in his 30s (I'm really not the best judge of age), a woman in her 20s, a gentleman in his 70s moving very slowly and taking each step with very deliberate movements, and finally a woman in her 70s. The younger man and woman were waved past the older gentleman who knew his speed was a hindrance to them. They passed to his left and proceeded on their journey. The older woman was about a half flight below the gentleman but stopped at every interval to wait for him. I believe she was his wife and, while unable to assist him directly, made sure to properly escort him to safety. 

As I approached the gentleman waved me through as well. I knew he would not want physical assistance (call it gentleman's intuition - or perhaps it was my unkept hair - remember I was unshowered) but I also knew that, should he be unable to continue, his wife alone would not be able to help him complete his journey. So, with his wife a half flight below him I decided to complete the remaining descent no more than another half fight below her at all times.

During this period more residents entered the staircase, proceeding to the street. (Who knew I was one of the speedier ones in the building when it came to rapid evacuation?) Very few of them offered the gentleman any assistance. That made me eally sad. What will it be like when I am in that situation? 

Near the bottom a woman in her 40s (again, I'm a bad judge of age but I'm estimating for the purposes of the story) came back in and announced to the elderly couple "I got a special OK from the fire department to come back to help you." She was their daughter who had gone down earlier to take her pets out of the building and then proceeded back to assist her parents. At this point I let her take over and went to hold the exit door for them. As they passed the daughter and her mother thanked me for my assistance (which was really just acting as an insurance policy in case any real assistance was needed) and the gentleman took the time out to shake my hand. That was one of the best feelings I had in days. I did nothing that changed the outcome yet he noticed and acknowledged my care for his well-being.

Outside, the building's dog were all waiting to receive petting and chin scratching as I walked by. But I still wondered what I will encounter, not too many years down the road when I'm in more need of physical assistance.

Lesson from today: take the time, every day, to notice someone who may need help and lend a hand. It costs little to nothing and there's nothing wrong with a little good karma. 

And, if you're wondering, it turns out that someone must have burnt something in their kitchen and opened their door to help get rid of the smoke. Once the smoke wafts out into the hallway all building residents are effectively screwed. At least this was a bit more excusable than the fire alarm that went off at midnight on Halloween, 2015 when a young resident held a party in his unit and his rented fog machine wound up setting off the alarm. 

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