The fire alarm went off this morning at work. A loud, ear-piercing alarm accompanied by flashing strobe lights warning everyone that something is amiss and we should vacate the premises immediately!
And not a single person moved, including myself. After about 20-30 seconds of it going off, I grabbed my phone, keys and sunglasses and started to amble out of my office to find everyone kind of looking at each other (there’s a phenomenon called "prairie dogging" in cubicle land and it was in full effect, with everyone’s heads popping over to see what everyone else was doing), wondering what to do. The alarm stopped at that point and everyone went back to work.
Why do we ignore fire alarms? We also ignore car alarms and to a certain extent, smoke detectors (unless they go off in the middle of the night). I suppose that there are a few theories: perhaps it is because car alarms are set off by a good rumble of thunder and a smoke alarm by an over-cooked pancake. It could be because so many things have alarms that we have become somewhat immune to them. Or it could be a fear of acting upon an alarm that could lead to getting into trouble if you do something wrong? Perhaps it is simply an unwillingness to admit that something is going awry.
It reminds me of a time a few months ago when I was in a supermarket and the fire alarm went off. Some of us paused, looked around and apparently we collectively decided that since there wasn’t an blazing inferno heading towards us, we were fine. Others didn’t even bother to look up from inspecting packages of meat and checking nutritional panels.
Eventually, the staff came out of the back, yelling at us, saying "you people need to GET OUT!!!" As we begrudgingly left our carts behind and walked towards the front, the distinct smell of electrical smoke – that acrid, burning metal aroma – filled the area. Everyone became more alert, and started moving faster. The fire department showed up and I just left, leaving my abandoned cart in the cereal aisle.