new york

The Psychology of a Fire Evacuation: What’s in Your Backpack?

My son has the cutest fireman’s raincoat that makes him feel super special when he is wearing it. Just a few weeks back fireman came to his school (he is in Pre Kindergarten) to talk about what to do in the case of a fire.  He seemed pretty jazzed about what he learned. He explained to me what to do should the smoke alarm sound: which by the way it often does whenever I cook (but that in itself is a rare occasion).  Whenever I hear a smoke alarm or fire alarm go off I get a case of the giggle. I tend to think “fire hahaha fire haha” ala Beavis & Butthead.  I know it’s so wrong. What can I say I was at some point a product of MTV.  But in all seriousness, it is pretty cool how my 4 year old son knows what to do in the case of a fire.


Now, we know schools and children are learning the fundamentals of fire safety and how to run out of a burning building.  What about adults in the workplace? About two to three times a year we have a fire department member come talk to our office staff about what to do in the case of a fire.  We stand around and take seriously in the moment what is being said.  We seem to understand the basics. We pull the red phone, report fire, grab the most important thing we need (i.e. small purse), check stairwell for smoke, don’t use the elevator, we check in the bathrooms for our colleagues, and we walk calmly down the staircase.  We have heard it so many times we would think it would be rote.


Of course, it is one thing to learn things by a presentation or conversation. It is something entirely different to apply what we learned out in the field or in a moment of possible crisis. That can be said for just about everything and not just how to respond to a fire, right?


I give plenty of trainings and presentations to healthcare workforce across the country on a yearly basis and in doing so I have to take into account adult learning principles.  For example, you cannot just provide information to adult learners (as is oftentimes done in college settings assuming a younger population).  You have to acknowledge adults’ past experience and be very participatory in the presentation. One must get adults to process the information being disseminated then and there. Adults have life experiences and knowledge that should be brought into the conversation. Adults need to connect learning to their knowledge /experience base.   I remember one of the first workforce trainings I did in which there was not that much space for a participatory process. Mid-day there was a near riot.  And, honestly that is their right.   But I digress. Oh wait, I have one more thing to say about adult learning. It will be relevant shortly, I promise.  Adult learners need “teachable moments.”  At its simplest, a teachable moment is that which learning –whether a new skill, idea, information or even a moment that leads to a new attitude or belief-becomes possible or easiest. For example, showing a health video to individuals about quitting smoking may be easiest when the individual is in the right mind-set or is in that moment where they are open to receiving information, such as when they are in the doctor’s waiting room. Also, how about those ads that encourage self breast exam that are placed in dressing rooms? Yes, the person may not be thinking at that time about health concerns if they are in a festive mood trying on clothes. However, there are in a moment where they can engage in such an exam in that they have a mirror and are getting undressed. Teachable moment.


Ok. So back to the Fire topic. Yesterday, you see, we had an actual fire in our office building. And a good 50% of what we had learned in those fire presentations went out the window. Or rather escaped the inner sanctum of our brains. We had a good laugh afterwards.  Some of us went upstairs instead of downstairs. Some of us grabbed our backpacks. Ahem. Ok. Not some of us. I admit it. It was me. I was on a lower floor in a meeting when we realized there was smoke on the floor. We then started getting people together to exit via the stairwell. But I was on a floor different from where my personal items were at. I ran upstairs while people were heading down. But I needed to check on staff anyway.  It wouldn’t be good if I left before others did. I ran to my office and grabbed my coat. It’s cold out. That makes sense. I grabbed my purse.  According to the fire marshal, that has come to speak to us on numerous occasions throughout my tenure here, bringing a purse was totally allowed.  Then I went a little nutty. I grabbed a backpack lying on my floor and I stuffed it. I stuffed it with a bag of candy-starbursts and skittles to be exact. I stuffed it with my laptop and my eternal drive.  I stuffed it with power cords. I put in some other random items as well that are too small and numerous to describe.  I then called out to make sure no one was left behind and we left –calmly walking down ten flights of stairs.  We all went across the street waiting for the fire trucks to arrive. I seem to recall that we were supposed to meet at the nearby park. But not a single one of us that. We just watched and watched and cheered when the trucks finally came. That was so New York!  New Yorkers treat the world as if it were just one big live streaming event –I was going to say television but so many people don’t even have a TV at home anymore due the subscriptions to HULU and netflix.


I had a good laugh about it all. I found my backpack moment to be one of those completely ditzy and unexplainable things I have done in my life.  Or so I thought. Then as I was talking to a colleague today, we both stated how the situation had been a trip since that was our first ever fire experience. Then I caught myself. I had completely forgotten that my house in Ohio had burned down due to arson when I was about 4 years old. It is actually one of my earliest memories. I remember being carried by an adult and held while we watched the flames engulf our house.  To this day fires mesmerize me. Then I remembered that at the age of 6, there was a fire in our apartment building in the Bronx (remember that the Bronx was burning at some point in time). During that fire, we evacuated. We were just on the second floor so the evacuation was fairly easy. What I remember more vividly now that my I have been prompted to, is that I grabbed a grocery bag and stuffed it with things. I grabbed a book, a hanger, one shoe, a piece of bread and the one doll that I had –his name was sleepy and I had bitten all his nails off. Don’t ask.  I may have grabbed some other items but those are the items I remember all too well.


I think it may be ingrained in our DNA to grab things when we are fleeing a burning space.  The items we grab are meant to preserve our memories, keep us connected or perhaps just serve a utilitarian aspect (i.e. powercords).  That automatic reaction I had was probably not only a result of our general predisposition to save mementos but also because I have gone through it before-although I had buried that memory (oh, the irony).  I don’t want to think of where we would be without our memories and mementos. A little figurine here can bring a smile.  A little figurine there can make one’s heart swell. Although, why I brought the starbursts and skittles is beyond me. Maybe I was hungry or inexplicably thought I was going camping.

If I should have to go through another situation like this again in the future, I do hope I  can apply what I have now learned out in the field (apparently for the third time).   Perhaps next time the fire marshal comes to talk to our office staff, I can now relate his discussion points to my past experience. I will use my knowledge of adult learning principles to my own fire drill learning.  And if not, I cannot wait to see what I pack in my backpack next time.










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