Fire Alarms, Lysol, and Pavlov’s Dogs

Posted on August 31, 2010


Fire alarms are these strange events that cause people to panic in a non-panicky sort of manner. It’s as though people know they should panic, but they’re not sure if it’s worth the effort. And then they get all twitter-pated… but not in a very useful or relevant way.  Let me explain what I mean by that. If you’re at school or work, and the fire alarm goes off, which of the following reactions are you most likely to have:


a) Holy crap! The building is on FIRE!
b) Oh no. I was right in the middle of something important. I’m just going to finish typing this email before I exit.
c) I can’t find my purse! Where is my purse? I can’t leave without my purse!!!!!
d) Sweet! A fire alarm! This will get me away from work/school/math test for at least 15 minutes!

 I’m going to guess that in the absence of obvious evidence to the contrary (such as smoke or flames) most people will probably have reaction (d), as I will explain momentarily. However, to be fair, I have seen reactions (b) and (c) enough times to know they exist. Once I witnessed this phenomenon reach ridiculous proportions when a woman was so panicked about finding her purse that we nearly had to drag her out of the office against her will. I guess she overlooked the possibility that the building might actually be engulfed in flames and she could only assume that the cleaning crew was sure to steal her purse while she was waiting outside.

 But anyway, getting back to my main point. I have never, in all of my experience, seen anyone react to a fire alarm with genuine fear of dying in a fire. I propose that the reason has to do with a complex system of Pavlovian psychological conditioning.  This conditioning starts in grade school, when they have pre-planned fire alarms that everyone knows about in advance. The teacher is calm and enjoying the chance to sneak a cigarette, the kids are excited about going outside, and everyone seems genuinely happy about the whole experience.

 This particular conditioning gets repeated biannually from kindergarten through senior year of high school. That’s 24 instances of being conditioned to believe that fire alarms = vacation.  So then, when we grow up and have to deal with these situations in the real world, we don’t really have the capacity for what you might call a “realistic” response.

 Last summer, I was finally de-programmed from this unfortunate conditioning, and I now view fire alarms with, if not panic, at least a healthy dose of annoyance.  And while I still don’t really take fire alarms seriously, I at least don’t look forward to them anymore. Here’s what happened:

 I work in a three-story government office. Last summer our building had an amazing amount of fire alarms. I think in the span of three months we may have had 10 different alarms. At first it was kind of fun, because summer’s a slow time around the office and it was something to do. Hanging out in the parking lot for an hour at a time felt cool…like the kids in high school who would skip class to go smoke in their car.

 After a while though, it started getting really old. I’d be in the middle of reading a really great humor website, or my favorite song had just come up on Pandora, or I had poured myself a fresh cup of coffee, or I’d just started to doze off and then “REEEEEEEE REEEEEEEE REEEEEEEEE. BZZ BZZ BZZ. REEEEEEEE. REEEEEEE. REEEEEE…..”

  The fire alarms started getting really disruptive and it was hard for me to get into my summer routine of doing nothing. Security had called in specialists ranging from actual firemen to electricians and maybe even a psychic or two. It seemed an unsolvable mystery, why, at least once a week, we’d have a fire alarm. I think at some point the fire trucks just stopped coming…which was really reassuring.

 Anyway, toward the end of summer – and I’m still not 100% sure how they figured this out, or if it was just a really astute guess – security informed us that the cause of the fire alarms was an overly ambitious use of Lysol “Summer Flower Mix” air freshener in the ladies bathroom.

 That’s right. The cause of numerous disruptions throughout the summer resulting in untold loss of government efficiency and wasted taxpayer dollars was caused by someone in the ladies bathroom on the third floor who was so embarrassed by the smell of her poop that she used enough Lysol to set off THE FIRE ALARM. On multiple occasions.

 So now they’ve put the kibosh on any further use of air fresheners in the bathrooms at our office. But to be fair, they’ve made this restriction across the board, for both men and women. I don’t really frequent the men’s bathroom that often, but I have a feeling they aren’t really wild about air fresheners in there in the first place.

 The ladies bathroom, on the other hand is now actually quite tolerable. I guess I’d never noticed before how the Lysol had really made the whole bathroom smell like a funeral at a feed lot. Now it just smells like a bathroom, and I’ll take the smell of poop over a weekly fire alarm any day.

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