Our Man in the Field: Alarms in the Night

Nov. 9, 2004
Our man in the field heads up to Toronto for business, and while staying at a hotel, he encounters the cat-herding experience of a high-rise hotel's fire alarm

OK, so here I am on the sixth floor of a very nice hotel in the greater part of the east side of Toronto, Canada, earnestly thinking about popping open the little window and sneaking a smoke. This one would be double jeopardy. First, I quit smoking three years ago, so what am I thinking? Second, this "non-smoking" room has a penalty of $150 if I get caught. The worst part of this is that the Canadian dollar is just a little shy of being equal to the U.S. dollar, so it would hurt. At any rate, here I am, when all of a sudden and out of the clear, the bells and buzzers of the fire alarm system start blaring throughout the building. It seems that some other schmuck didn't bother to open the little window when he lit up.

Well, I'm a security guy, and I never go above the third floor in a hotel outside of the United States or Canada. So, I start to pack. I know, you're supposed to leave everything in the room and trust the gods that your life and property will be there at the end of the alarm. Sorry, I don't trust those gods, and so I pack my computer, throw on a coat and shoes and proceeded to exit the building. It's a two-minute delay at most.

Step one: Find the appropriate exit since the elevators aren't working. As I walk toward the end of the hall, there is a guy and a gal who are standing outside the elevator door, in-front of the sign that says, "DON'T USE ELEVATORS IN EVENT OF EMERGENCY; PROCEED TO STAIRWELL AT EITHER END OF THE HALL." They are pushing the down button repeatedly. Admittedly, they don't speak English and I don't speak whatever language they are swearing in, but I get them aimed in the right direction.

Step two: Feel the door before you open it. Why? Because if it's hot, it's probably not a good idea to proceed. The story here? Just as I get within reaching distance of the door, a man and two young boys bolt for it and push the panic bar with no regards or fears of the boogie monster on the other side. After they're through, I still feel the door. Who knows, they could be cooking on the other side. It's cool to the touch and I enter the exit stairway.

Step three: Pay attention to where you started and where you are going, and learn to read really big numbers. These are painted on the inside of the emergency exit doors, and this is important for a couple of reasons. Most exit corridors have two stairs sets for every floor that you descend. Going around and around, it is very easy to lose count, especially if there are smoke or screaming children present. I mean it ... children screaming at the top of their little lungs, emitting ear-piercing, painful-even-to-a-deaf-man-screams. It's OK; these kids, with their father (I hope), had no clue and exited onto two different floors before they got to the ground. I knew the exact moment that they left the stairway and the exact moment that they re-entered. The muffled screaming was the biggest clue. The father probably stopped on the various floors to check if the elevator was working yet.

Step four: Exit the building and move to an area away from the immediate entrance. Why? So stuff doesn't fall on your head when the building collapses. Why? So when the firemen arrive, they don't have to push their way though a crowd to get to the guy stuck in the elevator. Why? Because that is what you were taught to do in the first grade unless you were absent that day.

Step five: When finally outside, look up to the floors above yours and see all the people standing in the windows of their high-rise rooms trying to decide if this fire is real or just practice. After all, it is 8 p.m. and the game is on. I think that most folks feel that if they had to, they would free fall from however many floors they were up, and then at the last possible moment, just before a splat was inevitable, they would jump. After all, anyone can jump and survive from 10 feet above the ground. It's the old scenario of "If the elevator fell 25 stories, with you in it, and you jumped up right before it hit the bottom, would you get hurt?" The answer is Yes, Yes, Yes -- you will get hurt!

Step six: Go back to your room mumbling and complaining and grumbling about how the next time, you're going to show these stupid hotel people; you'll just stay in your room and watch the game. I just love intelligent responses to difficult situations.

So you say, what does this have to do with CCTV? After all, that is the field that you've heard is my expertise. The answer is fairly simple -- absolutely nothing. But those alarm people in the audience could pick up some good advice in the next few lines. I think that we in the U.S. and Canada should set an example and pass some tough laws.

1. If you do not exit a hotel during an alarm, you will be ejected for the night and never again allowed to check into any hotel that is higher than two floors. You have been listed. Go live with the truckers and transients.

2. We need to pass a rule that requires that every person who checks into a hotel with three or more levels must pass a simple 10 question test or watch a fire safety video before they are allowed to have a room.

3. I think that parents should be fined $1,000 per child if they do not exit a building with their children when the alarm sounds.

4. I think that the alarm panels should be tied into all the televisions in the hotel. They would automatically override every channel and movie with a bright screen and a very loud voice that would say, "Get out now, you idiot."

In the end, we as a security industry need to hammer safety in hotels down people's throats. After all, if the airline industry still feels that it is important enough to demonstrate how a seatbelt buckles and unbuckles before each flight, we should feel equally obligated to demonstrate the purchase of pain that fire brings.

By the way, the CCTV system in the hotel preformed very well throughout the entire incident.

About the Author: Richard R. "Charlie" Pierce has been an active member of the security industry since 1974. He is the founder and past president of LRC Electronics Company, a full service warranty/non-warranty repair center for CCTV equipment. In 1985, Charlie founded LeapFrog Training & Consulting (Formally LTC Training Center), a full service training center specializing in live seminars, video-format certification training programs, plain language technical manuals and educational support on CCTV. He is an active member of: ASIS, ALAS, CANASA, NBFAA, NAAA and SIA. He is the recipient of numerous security industry awards, and is a regular contributor to Security Technology & Design magazine. Look for his columns to also appear regularly via SecurityInfoWatch.com and this website's Security Frontline e-newsletter.