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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This Is Maybe a Test

How not to run an evacuation drill:

Yesterday, we who work in the library at my college were informed that there would be an evacuation drill today. Of course there would. It's the week before finals, everyone is stressed out and rushed--let's practice running out of a building! Anyway, the emergency services folks told us that the drill would occur sometime before noon, most likely around 11:00.

Yesterday, coincidentally, I became aware of the fact that I was actually a building monitor, responsible for assisting during things like evacuation drills. Fair enough. I studied up, did some stretching, took a Xanax, and felt fully prepared to take part in today's festivities.

Now, funny thing: Contra Costa County has a number of refineries and chemical plants on its outskirts. Not coincidentally, the county also has a sort of early-warning system of sirens placed throughout the area that sound an alarm in the event of a leak. When the siren goes off, people are supposed to "shelter-in-place," i.e., get inside and stay inside until the all-clear is given. I've never actually heard the alarm go off for real. However, on the first Wednesday of every month, at 11:00 AM, the system is tested and the alarm sounds. Today, the first Wednesday in December, was no exception. At 11:00 on the dot, the alarms sounded as they always do.

Now, everybody KNOWS about regular, monthly shelter-in-place siren-testing. So, at 11:00, when the county-wide siren went off, I looked up briefly and then went back to what I was doing--let's say working. So did everybody else.

Well, almost everybody else. I heard a ruckus coming from the other side of the library and went to investigate. The head librarian, a somewhat. . .excitable sort, was going through the library telling everybody to get out of the building immediately! We needed to evacuate.

I made the mistake of approaching and asking whether she was SURE this was the evacuation drill?

"Yes, this is it!"

"But, I'm pretty sure that was just the regular shelter-in-place test--"

"I know, but they said around 11:00! They probably combined them!"

"'Combined them'? Can they do that?"


"OK, but. . . you've noticed that OUR alarms aren't going off in here, right?"

"Doesn't matter! This is it!"

Deciding that this was a battle not truly worth fighting, I went back into the tutoring center and told everybody that they had to leave right away.

"But, Mr. Solipsist, that was just the shelter-in-place--"


An embarrassing number of minutes later, we managed to get everyone out of the library. As I was heading to the assembly area, I found myself walking next to a police aide, who asked me why everybody was leaving the library. I explained that we were doing our evacuation drill.

"But that's not happening for another 20 minutes!"

"Yeah, well, the librarian heard the siren, and. . . "

"That was just the shelter-in-pl--"


"My name is Angela."

Anyway. In fairness to the frazzled head librarian, I cannot help but question the wisdom of an emergency services department that schedules a drill for the same day and approximately the same time as a regularly scheduled siren test. This all could have been made much clearer. Still, a valuable experience nonetheless. Nice to know that, in the event of an actual emergency, we will all most likely die.

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