Alarming

The fire alarm in our apartment building went off last night. Neil was asleep; I was just beginning to doze off. Safe to say it scared the living daylights out of me. We both shot up in bed with swear words. I couldn’t find the light switch, despite having turned it off only a few minutes earlier. I don’t think I’d yet fallen asleep, but it still set my heart racing and my stomach churning, like a sudden awakening always does. A stern voice filled the apartment: This is an emergency. Please exit the building immediately via the nearest exit. We pulled on warm clothing (I’d last been outside at 3pm and it was cold then so at nearly midnight I had no reason to think it would be anything other than bloody freezing) and Neil grabbed his phone. I surprised myself, not panicking nor imagining smoke-filled corridors and stairwells. I think, even in my disorientated state, I reasoned that the sprinklers would have activated if it had been an actual fire.

We hurried to join the stream of people trudging downstairs, marking our apartment as clear on the board in the lobby (which I had to leave to Neil – I couldn’t see the apartment numbers without my glasses). In the cold night we huddled in small groups and couples, a few singles staring at their phones. I shivered in my boots and warm layers, topped off with a thick scarf and padded jacket, staring at those who had come out in their nightwear, bare-legged and in slippers, a few with no shoes (although that’s not so unusual in NZ). My lower back was cramping, a sign I’d leapt out of bed without being careful how I was doing so, and I wasn’t sure if my shaking was from the cold or from delayed shock. Sirens drew close and red lights reflected off the building.

We’re no strangers to apartment fire alarms. When we were in Vancouver, in an apartment that was so hot it felt like it was on fire all the time, the alarm sounded as we finished breakfast. It was so loud it was painful (we didn’t know there was a silence button, something Neil hit as soon as he jumped out of bed last night) and we struggled into the barest minimum of clothing as we tried to cover our ears. We took the nearest stairs that led out to the back of the building. There a man stood, phone clamped to ear. His colleague was nearby, a blowtorch in his hand, a worried look on his face, smoke rising from an area just behind him. I suspect they had some explaining to do.

We walked around the front of the building to where a crowd had gathered, recognising a young woman we’d talked to the day before as one of her cats raced up and down the hallway, the other watching warily from the doorway. She held the braver cat in her arms and, as I approached to say hello, I saw she was struggling to contain it as six lanes of traffic rushed by. I then realised the other cat was in the large bag slung over her shoulder. She told me they’d both bolted and hid under the bed; she had to pull off the mattress to get to them, shoving one into the holdall and grabbing the other. The wail of sirens joined the wail of building alarm and the cat, eyes wide in terror, struggled even more in an attempt to escape the clamour. It was a two-woman job to literally not let the cat out of the bag as we tried to get the second inside. ‘I need a better plan,’ she said.

There were no cats last night, although pets are allowed in the building and I know there are a couple of dogs live here. We were outside for about ten minutes, a false alarm clearly being detected early. As we filed back in, queues forming for the lifts, I saw a young couple, he with a small child in his arms, wrapped in blankets, she with a strained look on her face. I thought back to how worried that young woman in Vancouver was for her pets and wondered how many times worse that fear must be for a parent, especially given that recently in New Zealand two children tragically died in a house fire.

Only as I walked up the stairs did I think of Grenfell, another tower, where the alarm wasn’t false and so many didn’t escape. We are lucky: our building is new, built since that tragedy and using lessons learned from it. We were never in any danger but still I’m grateful for this and, despite the inconvenience, to know the fire alarm works. And hope the sprinklers will.

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