Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Fire Drills

Fire drills are essential for large buildings but they can be a massive pain in the ass and potentially disastrous when researchers are "surprised" by a drill. If you are in the middle of a massive experiment that can't be put on hold or you have got that slot on the confocal you have waited a week to get then a half hour drill can really ruin things.

For this reason when the alarm sounded this morning it was greeted with a unanimous sigh from everyone. Several people didn't even leave, which defeats the whole point of the drill but is kind of understandable when they know it's a drill. Usually there's a rumour floating around about a drill so that everyone happens to be doing desk work with a cup of coffee and a coat on but we seem to have lost our inside man. I was lucky in that I'd just put my PCRs on and the weather was pleasant outside.

When I was doing my PhD the university had a pretty good policy for fire drills in that we'd be unofficially warned so as to avoid any essential experiments that could be ruined. They were usually in the afternoon too and there was a campus pub nearby so myself and some other efficiently minded colleagues would decide to seek refuge in the bar over a beer while the drill was being conducted, safe in the knowledge our experiments were fine. Sometimes we didn't make it back if a good beer was on.

For my postdoc in London things were a bit more complicated. There were "official" drills where they'd set up borderline assault courses to test our resolve and ensure we didn't always go out the main entrance and then there were the pretty frequent false alarms. On top of that there were a series of "alarms" which based on the sound determined whether we should run for our lives or carry on but be prepared to leave if things should suddenly get worse. It was a bit like learning Morse code.

More bizarrely was the fact that people working in the basement (the home of fly workers) had to leave regardless of the "threatcon" level. This meant we were supposed to leave via the closest emergency exit (which then triggered the security alarms), walk around the outside of the building and then hover outside until the ringing stopped. More canny cave-dwellers would just walk up onto the ground floor where they could remain "alert" but stationary usually next to the coffee machine. I still have no idea why the basement had such special treatment - you'd think those on the 7th floor would probably also benefit from being closer to an actual exit.
On the bright side, when it was sunny there was an ice-cream van cunningly placed exactly where the institute assembly point was gathered. I suspect a nice arrangement could have been made between the ice-cream man and a member of the institute for false alarms on sunny days...

So I'm not entirely sure how good fire drills are in academia. I guess it drills in a complete indifference to an actual fire meaning we wouldn't stampede out of the building. Also if no rumour of a drill occurring has reached us we treat it as potentially real.
I do wonder what some scientists would do in a real fire though. I suspect you'd see people walking out of the building with laptops and ice-boxes filled with essential items. If I had some essential flies I knew only I possessed I'd probably consider bringing some out with me. It must be even harder for the people who work with mice.

Which reminds me that my PhD supervisor had a deep fear of fires. Mainly in terms of it destroying his research. This paranoia ran so deep that while he was at a conference a fellow P.I. told him he'd had a dream that the university had burnt down. Fearing this was a premonition, my supervisor called the lab to get us to check for any gas leaks etc and to be extra vigilant against fires. No fire occurred so I guess that means he was right?


  1. Perfect day for a fire drill! We had one WHILE it was snowing a few weeks back. :(

    1. That's harsh unless the point was to allow you to play in the snow?
      In Edinburgh, fire drills were cancelled if the weather was bad. Maybe the logic was the fire would have to be really bad to overcome Scottish weather?