On Danger and Inconvenience: Fire Alarm at Millennium Station

Last night, as I was boarding the Metra train home at Millennium Station… the fire alarm went off. At least, I assumed it was the fire alarm, as there was the normal flashing light one sees with a fire alarm.

But instead of the sound of a tinny bell ringing, the alarm was more like the kind of thing you’d hear on the Enterprise when the warp core is about to go critical.

Here’s a super quick recording I made, so you can get a sense that this was… a serious alarm going off.

See what I mean? It’s a serious alarm, right? Of the “run for the bunkers, the nuclear bombs are falling” variety.

In addition to the alarm, there’s an automated voice telling folks to exit the building. And it also advises folks to exit the building in an orderly manner, and advising people to walk and not to run to the exit.

Which I know is meant to be a calming tactic, but on hearing it actually said alongside a blaring siren makes one think: “Run? Are people running? Is it that bad? Should I start running?”

All of this kicked off right as I set foot on the train. So I ended up lingering by the door, watching everyone else… waiting to see what others would do. And to see if the alarm might stop.

Most folks went about their way, ignoring the alarm. There was no fire in sight, and folks just kind of shrugged and moved along to their trains.

After a minute or two, an actual person gets on the PA system and tells folks to leave the building. But the kicker is it’s really difficult to hear this announcement because the alarm is still blaring, and the automated voice is also still talking.

It was so difficult to hear the actual announcement, I ended up asking someone who was walking by what was being said. On learning that the PA voice was also telling folks to leave, that kind of sealed the deal for me.

I walked a few steps towards the door and then realized: the PA announcement only came over the main speakers on the platform. But the same message didn’t get broadcast to those still sitting inside the trains.

I circled back to my train, walked into the back half of the car, and shared the announcement. I told folks an actual person got on the PA, and told folks to exit… and that they should do what they would with that info. Several folks got up at that point, and also followed me out towards the exit.

Just as we got past the first set of doors, a cop stationed by the exit started telling people to go back to their trains. A few passengers were telling the cop that a voice on the PA was telling people to leave, and the cop responded with “There’s no fire here” (meaning where we were standing). And then followed that up with “Go back to your train, folks!”

And like most others, I turned around and headed back to the train.

Here’s a photo I took, looking down the platform as I was debating what to do: should I board the train and head home, or should I exit the building?

Keep in mind that the alarm and the automated voice are still going at this point.

What I found fascinating is that everyone (me included) was doing a very specific kind of math in their heads, weighing the danger of the situation against the inconvenience of missing their train home.

Ultimately, I chose to avoid being inconvenienced – and I boarded the train. A few folks thanked me for giving a warning, as they too walked back to their seats and re-boarded. I overheard one guy (sitting in the upstairs section) saying how he couldn’t see a fire anywhere, and didn’t see a need to leave.

As the train rolled away, I could still see that the alarm lights were blinking on and off, on and off. And the alarm itself was still blaring.

When the conductor came by to check our tickets, I asked if he knew what was going on with the alarm. He shrugged and said “They didn’t tell us anything,” and continued down the aisle.

Looking back, I have a few observations about how people behaved:

– It’s not dangerous unless I can see the danger.
– I’m going to watch what others do.
– I will avoid inconvenience as much as possible.

On hearing the alarm, most folks (like me) assumed it was a fire alarm. But it sounded different enough that it gave me pause. Many felt that, since they couldn’t see signs of a fire – no flames or smoke – then it must just be a glitch or a false alarm.

Even the cop who turned people around – he assumed it was a fire alarm. And in the absence of a visible fire, he felt there was no need for alarm.

On the walk home, I was talking things out with Liz and reaizing how the alarm could have been for any number of things. What if it was a gas leak? You can’t really see that, but the fumes and the build-up are dangerous. What if it was someone with a gun, running around the station?

As a study in emergency building evacuation, it was eye-opening. Most people ignored the alarm and the automated voice. And some even ignored the human voice on the PA (or had a hard time hearing the announcement). The cop’s direction for people to turn back added to the confusion of what people should do.

I’m still not sure what happened (the sense I got is that maybe someone pulled the fire alarm). So ultimately, things were fine and no one was hurt.

But were it to to have been a true emergency requiring evacuation… that’s the scary thought. I’d say that at least 50% of folks just sat and remained on the train. Which is a pretty disturbing thing to imagine, in the context of an actual fire, or something truly life-threatening.

Something worse than being late getting home.

Walking Past the Man, the Woman, and the Medic
Fire Alarm and Building Evacuation, State and Jackson
Mathematics During a Fire
The Weight of Home

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