Is It Hot In Here or Is It Just Me?

Do you remember the West Warwick, Rhode Island nightclub fire in which one hundred people died back in 2003?  The fire started slowly with a small pyrotechnics display on the stage where a band was playing.  The fire crawled up some flammable material and caught the suspended ceiling tiles on fire. From there, it spread rather quickly.  I want to share something with you right now that I hope settles in the pit of your stomach like a ton of cold lead:  The ONLY people who survived that disaster were the ones who were able to exit the building in the first forty-five to sixty seconds after the tiny beginnings of the fire!

Forty-five to sixty seconds!  There were four working exits in the building, actually more than enough to handle the number of people who were present that evening.  Yet, the majority of the people who died were trying to exit from the front doors to the club. You see, it’s human nature to follow the path out that you took to enter, because it’s also human nature to be oblivious to one’s surroundings!

The entrance one uses to enter, is the one a person is typically familiar with.  When one is panicked and has lost control, one’s instinct is to move in the direction one knows affords certain safety.  To use the other exits at the West Warwick night club, some of the people would have had to move in the general direction of the flames rather than away from them, even though this could have been accomplished safely with little more than a temporary exposure to an uncomfortable but relatively safe level of heat.

As it was in West Warwick, the front exit quickly became jammed with terrified people trying to get out, while behind them the gushing smoke and fumes rapidly rendered those trapped inside unconscious and they died.

If you are reading this, you have demonstrated that you are not a typical example of the rest of the human race.  You have recognized vulnerabilities in your life and you want to do something to change that.  You are demonstrating a desire to enhance your personal security through a deeper understanding of your vulnerabilities.  Let’s talk about one of the greatest, yet probably the least considered vulnerabilities we routinely face.

Every time you enter a public or private facility, whether or not you are familiar with it, you are entering a potential trap!  Whether or not that trap is ever sprung is a matter of chance, not destiny.  There may never be a fire at that location, or if there is, the odds are astoundingly low that you will be one of the people affected by it.  That’s why the typical person can’t describe all of the exit locations to the facilities they routinely visit.  They don’t pay attention to them.

There is a theater my family and I used to frequently visit.  It’s in an old, multi-story building and there are four screens operating.  One of the screens is in a huge auditorium style theater that I love to go into.  It’s literally a hold-over from another, more pleasant time in America.  It’s on the ground floor and the exits are plentiful and clearly marked.

The other screens came later and were added on in upper rooms to the historic building.  To get to them, one must navigate a veritable labyrinth of narrow halls and cramped stairways.  From the first time I entered one of these other theaters I was uncomfortable.  While fire department inspectors have given this facility their seal of approval, in that the number of exits is adequate for the number of patrons each theater can hold, I instinctively know that the exits are inadequate for the number of patrons who will be panicking and stampeding through the tiny space allotted for escape.  The elderly, the infirm and the very young, will only slow the progress to a maddening crawl, while all the time terrified people will be choking from blinding smoke, or fleeing the flames licking at their backs.  Remember, old buildings burn much more rapidly than new buildings.  It is a recipe for disaster.

To reach the exits in these upper theaters, one will have to either descend or ascend steep stairs on either side of the seating area, and do so in a darkened theater under frightening conditions.  The stairs are narrow and cannot handle more than two people abreast at any time.  It will be in people’s nature to descend, even though the exits at the back of the theater may offer a greater opportunity for rapid egress.  To reach the rear exits, one must climb the stairs; all the while panicked people will be coming down them.  Yet, even in a place such as that, survival is possible in the event of a fire.  To do so, you will have to accept that some compromise will have to be struck between you and your conscience…if not your companions or family.

People like to go to the movies and sit pretty much in the middle of the seating area.  It affords the best view of the screen and the best position from which to enjoy the surround-style audio system.  It’s the worst place to sit if fire safety is one of your concerns and the crowd is large.

Personally, I like to sit on the end of a row and in the vicinity of the exits.  I make sure that I have them all located.  I also have a detailed plan.  What is it?  At the first faint hint of smoke, either smelled or observed, I’m outta’ there!  No hesitation!  Not one instant of indecision or wondering what may be causing it.  If I’m with my family, they know I’m going to be dragging them with me or pushing them in front of me, but we’re leaving!  I call it, “Leading by example.”

If you want preferred seating – the kind with fire safety in mind, not the kind where you can best hear the sound system – the trick is to arrive early enough to be able to select your seat, and not be forced to step over everyone else to reach the one or two unoccupied seats in the auditorium.  Also, I will not be separated from my family.  If the few remaining unoccupied seats require that we split up, we are leaving with tickets for the following show.

The people who survived the fire in West Warwick were the ones who either had just entered and were close to the door, or they noticed the flames and decided it was time to boogie.  Incredibly, while some were screaming and heading for the door, others were still on the dance floor oblivious to their fate.  Videotape played on the evening news showed the party atmosphere on the dance floor even as the fire was creeping across the ceiling tiles.  When I watched it, I couldn’t help trying to look closely at the faces of the people who hadn’t quite realized they were doomed.  They were most assuredly the ones recovered by the crews who raked and sifted the ashes for skeletons and fragments of bone and teeth.

A popular Italian eatery in Fairview Heights, Illinois burned to the ground a few years ago.  What is noteworthy about this incident is also the rapidity at which the fire traveled through the restaurant and totally destroyed it.  From the time management decided to get fifty or so patrons and staff out of the building and notify the fire department, to the time the fire department arrived from only three blocks away, the building was lost.  What’s more, the fire was almost undetectable to the patrons and staff because it was a smoldering fire in the attic of the building and did not set off the smoke detectors or sprinkler system.  Once it broke through the ceiling and received a rush of oxygen from the dining area, that room became an almost instant inferno!

It is difficult to imagine but I want to pound this home; had the manager not overcome his natural hesitation to disturb his patrons because of a mere “hint” of unidentified smoke, it is likely there would have been another tragedy to report on the national news.  Five minutes after the building was evacuated, the dining area became a blast furnace!

So, it’s time to make another one of those rules for survival.  If you smell fire or electrical smoke, you leave, quickly!  Even if you can’t identify the source; even if no one else seems to notice; even if doing so will interrupt your movie or your meal or your dance or your drink…you must leave.  Make your way towards the exits and worry about paying when you have nothing but a few feet between you and safety.  Tell management you smell smoke and then it’s up to them.  When an electrical fire or smoldering fire finally gets oxygen, the layperson cannot imagine how rapidly it moves.  In some instances, it is akin to an explosion.  If you don’t believe me, ask a fireman.


About danielchamberlain

Former Chief of Police. Former Special Agent, AFOSI (Retired). Former Director of Security of multi-national corporation. Currently, Registered Nurse. Father Husband Outdoorsman
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