Writer’s Workshop: Fire Drill!

Tell us about a time you were waiting nervously for something.

A time? I can think of 64 times (more or less) that I waited nervously for something: the monthly fire drill at school.

I understand the need for fire drills. Yesterday was the 63rd anniversary of the Our Lady Of The Angels School fire, where, due to lack of proper preparation and instruction, 82 children and 3 nuns perished. It led to a complete overhaul of the standards set by the school and the fire department. For one thing, it led to fire alarms being routed from schools immediately to the nearest fire station. For another, once a month, a lieutenant of the Chicago Fire Department would show up, and within half an hour, the fire alarm would sound and we would all demonstrate how well we walked out of the building and onto Loyola Avenue or Lakewood Avenue, well out of the path of fire trucks showing up.

I had no problem with the intention. I hated the bell. It was a very loud buzzer that would start out of nowhere and startle me. Which, when you come right down to it, was exactly what it was supposed to do. It probably wouldn’t bother me much if they just got on with it and sounded the alarm, but if it was cold out (which it was half the year), the principal would announce that we would be having a fire drill and that we should put on our coats. Then, it seemed to take an eternity, because the kids in the lower grades would take forever to get their coats on. I’d be sitting there, palms sweating, chewing at my nails (which on more than one occasion led to painful hangnails), waiting for the damn fire alarm.

In eighth grade, two guys were designated to assist the lieutenant. I always knew we were going to have a fire drill when they left the room. I wanted the job of the guy that turned off the connection to the fire department, then turned it back on and reset the system. The connnection was under the stage in the theater, where the fire alarm was inaudible…

When I got to high school, they had the same fire alarms. The difference was there was no way we could see the Fire Department officer, so we didn’t know it was coming. It didn’t bother me then….

26 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Fire Drill!

  1. What a catastrophic fire that initially killed so many! That sounds awful!! They sure were determined not to let it happen again and it sounds like it has worked. I was always startled by the fire drills too, but usually thankful for an excuse to get out of class. 😉

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    1. It’s worth having a monthly fire drill just to prevent something like that from ever happening again. That was terrible, and it was totally preventable. Mary, who was barely sentient in 1958 when it happened, says she has nightmares about it. A couple of my aunts were still in grade school at the time, and even though it happened on the other side of town they heard about it for most of the next week.

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  2. Ah, a bit of twist at the end! Wasn’t so much the alarm itself, but the anticipation of it.
    I agree, though. Fire alarms are typically very alarming.

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  3. Monthly is a bit much and would have me n the edge of my seat. To hear about the horrible fire many years ago is just so very sad. Too many of these things happen and can be avoided. My biggest angst is having to take tests. I am just a wreck because I usually do not do well in these. I pass but not by a lot. Funny but many friends will ask me questions about what we were testing on and I could tell them. When it came to the tests, they would pass brilliantly but I would get hung up on the wording and get stymied.

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  4. Wow, once a month! That seems a little excessive. We have regular fire alarms in schools and work places, but it is more like 2 to 4 times a year!

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    1. That’s usually the case here, to have a fire drill monthly. Why, I couldn’t tell you. Keeps a lot of Fire Department lieutenants employed, that’s for sure.

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  5. I hear you on this one. I always liked taking a break in the day, and definitely understood the need, but hated the buzzer! So sad to hear about that school fire; that’s heartbreaking!

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  6. I definitely hate fire drills! We don’t do them in my care facility, at least not the type where you actually need to escape, as the majority of clients need to be evacuated by staff or firefighters. However, the alarms do get tested every month or so and this is very overloading. I know it’s necessary though.

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    1. As I was saying yesterday, that school burning down over 60 years taught us all a lesson. One was “make sure your equipment is in order” and “make sure people know what to do in an emergency situation, and keep reviewing it.” You want people to do things on instinct and not stop and ask themselves “what do I do now?”

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  7. Fire drills didn’t bother me that much and I kind of enjoyed them when I lived in San Diego or when the weather was fine back East. It did get a bit miserable in Indiana in the winter, shivering outside waiting for the darn thing to be over with.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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    1. Chicago can be one of the coldest places on earth during the winter (as I’m sure you could attest to), and those were days they would usually have them…

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  8. I hated fire drills. They always seemed to happen when I was in gym class, wearing that horrible uniform they forced us to wear. I remember with no fondness whatsoever a winter day when the temperature was below freezing and the alarm sounded while I was in gym class (naturally). We girls, decked out in our ridiculous little shorts and sleeveless shirts, had to run outside to the parking lot, where we damn near froze to death while waiting for the drill to end.

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  9. After I was transferred to Atlanta by my employer, my new office was located in an eleven-story building and I was on the ninth floor. We all dreaded the fire drills and having to go down many flights of stairs. The alarm was a shrill beep that would drive anybody nuts. I was so grateful when I retired.

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    1. So it was like trying to make it down the stairs with a truck backing up? I know the feeling…

      Part of the reason I went on disability was that none of the potential employers would let me work at home full time, and I was concerned that I might fall on my way down the stairs and cause an even bigger emergency.

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      1. There were a few that were able to leave the building ahead of the drill because they couldn’t use the stairs. We always knew about the drill ahead of time.

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  10. Yes I remember the fire arms at school.
    When I was first working as a trainee window dresser in a department store, early 70s.there were a load of power cuts due to coal miners fighting the conservative government who had introduced a 3 day week. The store had to close when there was no power so while all the staff were up stairs in the canteen enjoying an extended tea break (they had gas ovens and hobs) we window dressers had to work as we had daylight in the windows!
    During one such power cut the phone on our mezzanine rang. We ignored it for ages, then realized we were the only people down stairs therefore it must be for us! There was a fire! Due to no electricity the alarm was off, everyone was out of the building except us window dressers.. would we please join them.
    .. that does not make sense but it happened!

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      1. It was in the stockroom which we had to pass through to get out because the shop was locked. Luckily it was in the other end of the stockroom and the fire brigade sorted it all out quickly 💜

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    1. I hate when fire alarms go off in hotels because they’re almost always false alarms (at least that’s been the case for me). To lose your hearing, even temporarily, because of something like that must be aggravating as hell.

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      1. This hotel had an alarm in each room – it was less than ten feet away. When I told them what happened, they said I could have asked for a sound-dampening cover for it (but no one explained that up front). It was very frustrating.

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