Fire Alarms are Not Real (and other adult things I’m learning)

Today something weird happened. I don’t know if it symbolizes my initiation into adulthood or if I just learned the wrong thing in elementary school, but here’s what went down: I was minding my own business in my plain, color-stripped cubicle when suddenly my eardrums were assaulted by the sound of a fire alarm.

I stood up at my desk, frozen for a second trying to gauge how fast I should walk out so I wouldn’t look like an idiot. Then I saw one of the “higher-ups” briskly walking past and a wave of calm washed over me. I didn’t have to gauge the situation since everybody knows he had just signaled the universal cue to calmly-exit-a-building-that-could-possibly-be-on-fire. He was no longer a director but now a teacher routinely leading the classroom out of the building for the third fire drill of the year. So I grabbed my purse and keys and tried to make my power walk casual as I stepped into the hallway.

But when I walked out, expecting to be met by a flow of people reaching for the exit, I stopped dead in my tracks. No one had budged. Everyone was still working with their eyes glued to their screens. As I scanned each person for a reaction, there seemed to be no cause for alarm whatsoever- if you didn’t count the overwhelming buzzing noise that made it impossible to think straight. I didn’t go through a million fire drills in school for this to not count, I thought stubbornly. After standing there for a good ten seconds I realized that I had just made a brisk exit out of my cubicle with my keys in one hand and my purse strapped over my shoulder. I couldn’t just turn back around like nothing had happened. So I timidly leaned over and quietly asked one of my co-workers if we were “supposed to go somewhere” with the maturity of a seven year old.

It took a second for him to tear his eyes away from the computer screen. Because yes, I’m sure having a blaring alarm in the background equates to top-notch focusing abilities. But when I finally won over his attention he briefly looked around, as if he had just thought to do so, and simply concluded, “No one seems to be moving so…”

What? Okay so there is a chance he was thinking this was a drill or maybe some weird routine alarm thingy that happens sometimes and it’s totally-cool-so-don’t-worry-about-it.  But it’s not like my coworker was suggesting that to be a possibility. He seemed to have no idea what was happening either, he just looked to see what others were doing and followed suit like he could care less if his eardrums exploded.

His reaction made me think back to the last fire alarm I had experienced. Since everyone knows you’re not really a college student until you blow up a microwave, someone had decided they wanted their pizza rolls extra crispy and set the fire alarm off in one of our main buildings on campus. I was in a lounge at one of the computers with about four other students scattered throughout the room. When the alarm started blaring, I slowly turned around to see everyone cautiously frozen, as if we were playing chicken and waiting to see who would be the first loser move. Cause ya know, fire safety is just the dorkiest thing on the planet. After what seemed like a long 30 seconds I took charge, awkwardly addressing the room of people I barely knew and had no authority over. I blurted out, “Shouldn’t we leave or something?”

Everyone looked at each other and then grumbled while reluctantly packing up their stuff. I remember thinking that we had all probably endured at least a 100 planned fire drills throughout our lives since our first day of kindergarten.  So why were we so defiant? You would think the behavior would be automatic, but all the alarm caused was a mild uneasiness that, when paired with other people also ignoring it, went away within seconds.

I guess we ultimately knew what we had to do because we all got up to leave. Good thing, too. Because what we assumed to be a fire drill was actually the real thing and as soon as we reached the main hallway we were met with dozens of our classmates, all following the rule that had been drilled into us since we first set foot in a classroom.

But today at my big-girl job was different. When I stepped out of the cubicle to see if anyone had moved, no one was looking around to look for cues on how to behave. They were just going on with their daily tasks as if they didn’t hear the screeching noise blaring rhythmically out of the speakers.

It was startling to have this instinct where I knew I was supposed to immediately leave a building and no one else was budging.  Do we become desensitized to these sorts of things when we get older? Will there be a day in which I, an accomplished businesswoman, will be sitting up straight and confident at my desk typing away as an ear-piercing alarm goes off and a frazzled intern asks me what’s going on? I’m not sure I can see that happening.

And yes, I know what you’re thinking. I did check my email this morning. If this was planned, I wasn’t told. But the comical situation got me thinking, what would it take for these people to get up and leave? For a child, it doesn’t take much. Even the slightest sign of alarm can send a child running. But an adult? Psh. Who cares, right? “I don’t have time for fire alarms darling, I haven’t made a proper dent in my inbox yet!”

I guess I’ll just have to wait for the day when my instinct melts away and I become calm and collected, completely unabashed by fire alarms. But until then, I think I’ll continue to the be the voice of reason. Just in case somehow the alarms start getting connected to actual fires. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

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