Saturday, December 08, 2007

Polish fire safety drill

I work in a large public institution in Warsaw and it was ‘Fire Drill Day’ today, when we all practice what would happen if a fire really did break out in the building. And if this comical farce was anything to go by, then we are all going to fry alive.

Yesterday afternoon, someone from administration gave me a tip off. She said: “Listen, don’t tell anyone, but there is going to be a surprise fire drill at 11 O’clock tomorrow.”

So I went and told everyone that there would be a surprise fire drill at 11 O’clock.

This was useful news. The mornings are particularly intense where I work and this would help us organize a little better if we all had to troop out of the building and stand around in the cold for heaven knows how long, while firemen inside ran around pretending there was a fire.

Come the morning my immediate boss was told there would be a surprise emergency fire drill at 11 O’clock. So he told all the staff…who already knew, of course.

As 11 O’clock approached the atmosphere became expectant. At 10.30 the lifts stopped working. By 10.45 people had stopped working. By 10.50, when downstairs buying sandwiches (who knows how long this would last?) I saw people in coats and hats waiting in reception for the alarm to go off. It reminded me of the Fawlty Towers episode where all the hotel guests did the same thing, hanging around reception half an hour before the alarm. Basil Fawlty told them to go “back to their rooms and act normally.”

But nobody where I work was acting ‘normally’.

And then 11 O’clock finally came. And then 11 O’clock finally went. No alarm.

The only surprise left of the ‘surprise fire drill at 11 O’clock’ was that it didn’t happen at 11 O’clock.

By 11.15 it still hadn’t happened, either.

The Director came in to the office and told me that the reason why the surprise fire drill was late, was that the fire engine had gotten stuck in the heavy Warsaw traffic!

A bad comedy script writer wouldn’t have dared to make this up.

Finally, at 11.20 the Director reappears, walking down the corridor, opening each of the doors to offices, saying: “Ok, it’s started.”

People emerging into the corridors, confused. If the fire drill had started, then where was the fire alarm?

Meanwhile, fake ‘smoke’ started to appear from the corridor around the corner.

Who was not down stairs already on the third floor where I work, trooped their way down, with fake smoke hot on their heals.

Except …our department had a problem. One of us, Wlodek [all names are changed except when it is their real ones] is disabled, and cannot walk down stairs. And the lifts stopped working forty minutes ago.

Earlier the boss had rang security, asking what to do about this. We were told that four of us had to ‘bring him down in a stretcher.’ My boss asked them if they ‘had a stretcher?’

They hadn’t. So did they expect that we would have one?

By the time we got to the stairs, Head of Security emerged with two mates. They told Wlodek to ‘go back to the office and wait till it’s over.’ So I watched Wlodek and Security disappear back down the corridor and into the fake smoke gloom.

When we got outside, the fire engine had just pulled up, watched by a few policemen who had been posted on duty by the gates. Someone heard the Chief Fireman ask one of the hundreds of people hanging around, “Which entrance is the main one?’ He hadn’t even consulted plans of the building before turning up!

We were told the performance could last ‘up to two hours’, so I was glad of my sandwiches. I was even thinking of popping home. In the end, thankfully, it only lasted about 15 minutes, when we were called back in again.

The lifts didn’t work for another hour and a half, so we drudged back up the stairs, through the fake smoke, to find Wlodek hard at work in his office.

All in all, a totally pathetic performance by all public services, and…well, a little dangerous that public buildings should be in the hands of a bunch of fools.

Still, I haven’t laughed so much in ages.