COLUMN: July 5, 2012

BEFORE we go on, I feel I need to say that I approve of fire drills. One of my least favourite things is the idea of dying horribly in flames and anything which even slightly lowers the chances of that happening is to be welcomed.

Nevertheless, if one wanted to design a way to make a large number of people feel self-conscious and uncomfortable without telling them individually that you love them, then a fire drill is the way to go.

There is no part of a fire drill which is not awkward. It starts with the Coat Dilemma. One is told not to retrieve one’s belongings and to leave immediately, which is fair enough, as office building infernos are bad. On the other hand, it is likely to be raining, or, at the very least, a bit nippy.

In any case, a large proportion of people leaving the building “just happen” to have been wearing their coats.

I can only imagine how awful it would be to be on the toilet when the fire bell rang, the mild panic as one adjusts one’s garments. And then that moment of wondering if one has time to wash one’s hands. If anything, this is worse than the Coat Dilemma.

“I don’t know, Darren,” one would say, although the name would change depending on one’s own nominative circumstances, “Dare I risk being consumed by an A4 photocopying paper and Post It Note-fuelled Fireball Of Doom, or is there a greater risk of dying from the mange?”

Assuming that all worked out, one would still join one’s colleagues late, and they would all know one had been to the toilet.

But it is bad enough being stuck outside for a fire drill. It is as if a curious giant has tipped one’s office building on its side and shaken everybody out, despite the fact that not everybody is particularly ready to be displayed to the general public, or, even, their own colleagues.

Also, it is dreadful and embarrassing to see people you work with every day forced to wear a high-visibility tabard.

So it was with a shameful, but delightful, sense of schadenfreude that I happened upon a fire drill at Exchange Flags behind Liverpool Town Hall. I even took a photograph of the milling crowd of disturbed office people and put it on Twitter with the caption: “This is either a fire drill, or the world’s dullest flashmob.”

And I surfed the ocean of displaced administrators with a certain smugness. “Ha, ha,” I thought. “I have been where you are, and I did not enjoy it one bit. And I hadn’t been to the toilet, oh no.”

I arrived at the Liverpool Post Hyperdome, and was surprised to see a larger number of snoutcasts than usual smoking outside. I felt uneasy. I stepped through the revolving door and was stopped by a guard. “Can’t let you in, building’s been evacuated.”

This is typical, I thought, as I walked to the evacuation assembly area. Can I not have one moment of glorying in other people’s misfortune?

The area was packed, like Concert Square without the constant smell of beer and sense of menace, and I searched for my own colleagues, so my name could be ticked off.

I searched for 10 minutes, then texted my friend Barrie. “Where are you?” I asked.

– “Who is this? I do not know who you are.”

– “Gary. Where are you?”

– “I am here.”

– “Barrie, my phone battery is about to die, I am in a fire drill, please tell me where you are.”

– “At my desk.”

I walked back to the Hyperdome and used the other entrance. I was not impeded by a security guard. If anything, they looked entirely unfussed by my progress. This was good, but also bad.

I entered the newsroom. It was full of people doing whatever it is they do. A chill hand clutched my bowel.

The fire drill was for the insurance workers in the adjoining office. I had managed to get myself caught up in somebody else’s fire drill for a quarter of an hour.

So if you find yourself on the toilet when a fire drill happens, you can at least console yourself with the fact that you are not me.

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