Traveling Prepared – When to Evacuate your Hotel Room

I was on the phone this evening with family – around 6:30 PM local time, when I was interrupted by the muted sounds of my hotel’s fire alarm going off in the hallway.  The bright flashing pulse of a white strobe, that accompanies the fire alarm, visible underneath the door, confirmed to me what the sound meant.  So I quickly got off the phone and immediately exited the hotel via the nearest stairwell without hesitation, right?

Well, almost.

After hanging up the phone, I opened my hotel room door to find the hallway filled with a strong odor of burnt toast and visible smoke.  So, okay, I told myself, I really should be going now.  So I immediately proceeded to exit the hotel via the nearest stairwell, right?

Not quite.

I left the door open so I could hear any announcements or anything people in the hallway might be saying and went back into my hotel room.  I grabbed my laptop and cellphone and threw them quickly into the empty backpack I had with me (conveniently lying empty on the bed), put my hotel room key in my pocket and reluctantly, because I knew that even taking the laptop would be against my own advice, left everything else in the hotel room and exited into the hallway.

Before closing the door, a couple walked by who said that my neighbor had burned a piece of pizza in the microwave in his room.  Sure enough, next door, I found a man trying to shout over the fire alarm into the phone, who stopped to tell me, “Can you believe this?  I burned a piece of pizza in the microwave and all this happens!” and then he turned back to screaming into the phone.  There was smoke and the strong odor of burnt toast (or pizza crust, as the case was) in the room butno fire, so I was satisfied that there was no immediate danger here on the eighth floor.

The couple turned around and proceeded down the hall.

“You know,” I said to them, “this guy on the eighth floor burns a piece of pizza, and at the same time, a real fire breaks out on the sixth floor.  It would be best to take the stairs to the lobby until we know more.  The stairs are right here.”  They smiled and waved and went back to their room.

I paused in thought before my door, pulled it close, and then finally immediately proceeded to exit the hotel via the nearest stairwell, which happened to be located directly opposite my room.  From the fire alarm going off until this point in the story took no more than 3-4 minutes.

When I got outside (because the stairwell emptied to the sidewalk), I could hear no alarms, sirens or other hotel guests nearby.  The hotel entrance was just a few yards away, so I re-entered the hotel and went to the front desk, where I found a long line of people waiting to check in.  There were no alarms, flashing lights or any apparent sign of activity or response to the fire alarm that had led me to evacuate the building only minutes before.

I approached the front desk and asked whether the fire alarm had been cleared and whether it was safe to return upstairs.  The girl behind the desk told me that they had turned off the alarm (so noisy) and sent someone upstairs to check it out.

Ugh.

When I returned upstairs, the alarms were not sounding anymore, but the strobe was still flashing (it went off within 10 more minutes); I opened my window for a while to air out the room, and sat down to write up this story.

Lessons Learned:

So, how did I do?

I just finished reading Amanda Ripley’s exquisite book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why.  She spends a lot of time discussing the different ways in which people respond to disasters.  She breaks down how people respond into three phases: denial (inaction), deliberation (deciding what to do), and “the decisive moment” (when you decide to act).

According to these standards, I think I did pretty well.  I spent no time in denial, moved quickly into deliberation, and acted fairly decisively according to my training and experience.

I did leave my flashlight behind in my suitcase (and my keys with my keychain flashlight was in my computer bag).  Boo.  They weren’t on my person at the time, and I honestly very consciously did not want to spend a lot of time thinking about what to take with me, because when you are evacuating a building or an airplane or anything else that may be burning, the rule is to leave your belongings behind (because they can only get in the way) and get your person (and other persons) to safety as soon as possible.  Things are just that, things.

I honestly think that I returned to my room to grab my computer because there was smoke in the hallway.  Otherwise, I probably would have assumed that the fire alarm was a false alarm and would have just left it.  But faced with the prospect of a proximate cause of smoke, I considered the real possibility that anything I left behind in my hotel room might be damaged by fire, smoke or water.  And I just couldn’t bear to leave the notebook behind – and that wasn’t a case of it being valuable monetarily.  It was more an issue of time.  It would take days (literally) to replace it; even though I backed up all my files before leaving on this trip on Monday, to start afresh with a new computer requires hours and hours of configuration, loading/installing of the software applications I use, and restoring my data files from those backups.  I couldn’t face losing days of productivity until I got the new machine where this one is now.  Next time, I will leave it, and I hope that this experience and conscious deliberation in advance will improve my performance the next time I am faced having to evacuate.

Finally, I wanted to admit that when I made the reservation at the hotel, I requested a room on a high floor.  I did this both because I tend to find that rooms on higher floors tend to have better views, and because they tend to be quieter – especially concerning street noise. However, this was a bad choice.  In the event of an emergency evacuation, which became a real situation, I found myself eight flights above street level.  I would have been much better prepared for a disaster on a lower floor.

This is probably generally true for staying in hotels – I would not want to be trapped on an upper floor of a high-rise hotel where I am unfamiliar with the stairwells and emergency exits if there were a fire or other incident.  I think it is generally a good idea to know and use the stairs at least once to exit any building you find yourself working in or staying in regularly, including hotels, and I’m glad I’ve now had a dry run during daylight, so I know exactly what to expect if the next alarm is real, there is smoke filling the stairs, and the lights are out.  My flashlight will be on my bedside table tonight.  And when I go to earthquake-prone California in a few weeks, I will be requesting a room on a lower floor.

The last lesson should be obvious.

When a fire alarm sounds and you find yourself in an unfamiliar building, do what you are supposed to do and exit the building.  This is especially important when you find yourself on an upper floor of a hotel with several flights of stairs between yourself and the street.  I’ve stayed in lots of hotels that have suffered false alarms – some in the middle of the night – and there is definitely an almost instinctual reaction to blow it off and remain behind, especially in the absence of smoke, panic (PANIC!), and other hotel guests returning sleepily to their rooms.  Delay, inaction and denial caused many to lose to their lives in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and in many other disasters.

So be prepared to evacuate when you are traveling; know where the emergency exits and stairwells are located, and practice walking down the stairs and out of the building if you have the opportunity.  And plan, at least in your head, what you will do if a fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night.

If you do, you’ll be Living Prepared™.

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