Not quite a fire

While not a disaster this incident demonstrated the importance of practicing disaster responses and recovery strategies, rather than accepting training at face value and not asking questions.

While on my student placement I joined my new team at a specialist subject library full of enthusiasm at the same time as a colleague who had just landed her first professional role. We took part in a lot of training and orientation sessions together. My interest and knowledge in the subject matter meant I could help my colleague understand some of the inevitable jargon; while her recent qualification meant she could help me out with applying theory to practice. All told and excellent start.

The day came when all the experienced members of the team were unavoidably out of office leaving the library service in our hands for the day. We were confident, excited, determined to demonstrate that we could be trusted with the responsibility. Unfortunately my colleague also chose that day to make toast at work for the first time in our little kitchen. The kitchen fire detector turned out to be a heat sensor not a smoke sensor with predictable consequences.

Our library fire system was linked with the medical centre next door leading to the whole med centre being evacuated. However, we knew it was a false alarm so rather than running outside I tried to contact the fire service to explain that we didn’t need a full response, just someone to switch the alarm off. Attempts to contact the fire service via a non-emergency number became increasingly desperate and we gradually realized that the library fire alarm wasn’t automatically connected to the Fire Service as we’d been told; so no one was coming. We had to contact someone. I decided a lateral approach was called for and called the onsite Police service for advice. A very calm Inspector assured me that he would arrange for the fire service to sort the problem out for me and that he knew who to call. I made it clear this was a false alarm not wanting to divert vital resources from any potential “real” situation.

Two fire engines later, a lot of people bustling about with breathing apparatus the building was declared safe, the alarm finally switched off and the building handed back to two very embarrassed Library Assistants.

So, when you get the fire tour of your new place of work don’t take it at face value. We should have asked:

1 How do you know the alarm is connected to the fire service automatically? If there had been a real fire no one would have called the fire service because we all thought the alarm was connected to the fire brigade. Procedures were changed to say “call emergency services”

2 Have response times been tested as well as the function of the alarm?

3 Where are sensors located, are they appropriate for the area they are in?

4 I had called the onsite emergency services number but was shocked when instead of speaking to our friendly local switchboard operator I received the standard “Emergency services, which service do you require?” response that you’d get from a 999 call. So I put the phone down not wanting to call external emergency services to an onsite problem. (We had been warned in our orientation not to call 999 but to call onsite services first and let them assess the need for external help. We weren’t warned that the internal emergency number switchboard response mimicked the 999 call handler leading to my confusion).

So when you get your fire evacuation orientation training at work – Don’t assume – Check!!

 My esteemed colleague decided not to eat the by now cold toast and went to the shop for a belated sandwich. The toaster “bought it”.


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