This is Not a Drill, Maybe
Theater-goers are always told before the show begins to look around and identify the closest exit, just in case you might need to exit in an emergency. We’re told the same on airplanes in those pre-flight instructions. But a recent event in a very tall hotel left me wondering why I was so hesitant as to what to do. It happened in Nashville, at the Omni Hotel, which I was staying at for the Annual Consortium of MS Centers meeting. The day I gave a presentation at 7 AM left me tired, and I returned to my hotel room early afternoon to take a brief rest.
I had just dozed off, slipping into a much needed nap, when the emergency fire alarm rang. At first, I thought let’s ignore the blasting noise of the siren in my room. Perhaps if I pull the pillow over my head I can pretend this isn’t happening. Alternating with the alarm noise was a pre-recorded message ordering me to leave my room immediately and to evacuate the hotel using the closest stairway and a reminder that the elevators would not be operating.
Having worked in schools for over 25 years, I don’t underestimate the importance of fire drills, but this time I was hesitant to evacuate the building. Why would I ignore this warning? Simply put, I was going to have to navigate the stairs, and a lot of them.
My long descent
My room was on the 22nd floor, and I was immediately cursing my misfortune of having returned to the hotel instead of remaining at the conference, and my even worse luck of having MS and mobility issues. As I lay on the bed listening to the alternating message of pending doom to evacuate immediately and the ear piercing siren, I could only hope it would soon stop and it would be declared a false alarm. Alas, such was not the case, and not wanting to be the headline that read Woman Perishes Because She Ignored Warnings, eventually (as in about five minutes) I did the adult thing and made my way to the stairway and began the long descent to the ground level.
About the only touch of luck in this episode was the stairway was rather narrow, with a handrail on each side that I could grasp with both hands. There were few people in the building because this was mid-day, but most of the few folks who came behind me were kind enough to slow and ask if I needed assistance. Or maybe they just slowed because I had to let go of one of the handrails so they could pass.
Smelling no smoke and not hearing a stampede of firefighters coming up the steps to rescue us gave me confidence that this was not a true emergency. and I told these folks to go on ahead. Telling them I would be fine, but I didn’t mind if I died alone in the stairway because I had lived a full life. A few caught the wry humor, but most were busy saving themselves and just went on their own way.
Nevermind, emergency is over
I made it as far as the 9th floor when I decided to stick my head out into the main hall to see if it was clear, and I discovered the alarm had finally been turned off. I slowly walked down that hallway, to the elevator, and went to the 1st floor. A hotel employee informed me that there had been a small electrical fire two floors above me, but it was ok to return to my room.
Obviously, I survived the alarms and the stairway but heard from my family afterward that I did the wrong thing. They swear I should have called the front desk and asked for assistance to leave the building. I tend to be a bit more independent thinking than this and it never occurred to me that there must be evacuation plans and assistance for people with mobility issues.
Have a plan
This event sent me searching on the internet for more information and it seems there are not legislative answers (laws) about evacuation, but I found two excellent resources to reference. The first is from the National Fire Protection Association, Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities. This 67-page guide offers ways to build an evacuation plan for a wide range of conditions and is worth a quick read.
The second resource I found is from SafetyInfo, a firm that specializes in safety literature in all industries, and their brief guide offers easy to digest tips on what evacuation procedures should be considered. They have an extensive online library of safety guides that are free to the public, including Evacuation Planning and the ADA.
Regardless of our physical condition, and whether we are staying in a high rise hotel, or live independently in a single story home, we should all consider taking some time to think through how to evacuate if there is an emergency and need to leave the building. As for me, I’ll continue to make mental notes of where the closest exit might be and hope I never have to evacuate and climb down that many steps again.
Wishing you well,