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Friday, July 26, 2019

Lessons from a popcorn fire


If you've worked in an office, chances are good you've experienced the popcorn fire. That happens when someone microwaves popcorn for longer than they should have and the popcorn burns, creating enough smoke to set off the fire alarm and force the building to evacuate.

But the hard thing about a popcorn fire is that you usually don't know at the time that it's a popcorn fire. When it happens, all I know is that the fire alarm has been activated for some reason and that it's time to decamp from the office. Most of the time, I never even see or smell the smoke from the fire, so I walk calmly out of whatever exit there is and enjoy the unexpected break from my work day.


Except one time. I was on the 10th floor of a high rise office building. When the alarm went off, I could actually smell the smoke. Instead of calmly walking to the exit, I walked briskly to the exit. I didn't panic, but my goal was to escape and not just leave.

I didn't panic, but I also didn't follow certain procedures that had been discussed by our building manager. Those procedures advised us to knock on every office door on our floor to let people know there's a fire alarm and to see if anyone needed help. I didn't do that. I just walked on out and saved myself.

I was still technically following the procedures. The fire safety procedures always had this proviso: leave right away if you feel your safety is threatened. Ergo: don't be a hero. I had no difficulty following that part of the procedures.I should also state that while I had smelled smoke, the smell wasn't very strong, and I don't think I actually saw smoke. In other words, I probably could have at least knocked on doors while I left. But I didn't do that much.

So, I didn't exactly cover myself with glory.

What did I learn from this episode? Well, it reminded me that I'm not really brave. I needed the reminder, and I still need it. I've actually had other reminders throughout my life. It's not always a popcorn fire. (Actually, other than the episode I'm relating here, it's never been a popcorn fire.) But it's usually an opportunity to show some bravery, and I fall short. Usually--almost all the time--the opportunities in question are as dangerous as a popcorn fire.

And it's more than just "showing bravery." If simply "showing bravery" is the goal, then it's not a very good goal. I could do that by exaggerating known popcorn fires or (if I were ambitious and a little bit criminal) manufacture my own popcorn fire. But usually "showing bravery" is coupled with doing something to help others or with doing the right thing.

When minor emergencies like popcorn fires aren't happening, I tell myself, mostly sincerely, that I'll do what I'll need to do if an emergency arrives. The reminders tell me not to be so confident.

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