I live on the 23rd floor of one of the countless high-rise buildings in Vancouver BC. I am relatively new to high-rise living having acquired the apartment in late 2009 but not really living there full time until the summer of 2010. I have or have had a fear of heights and normally would avoid looking out from windows of anything higher than about the 4th floor of any building and did not like walking over bridges especially the high ones. This has changed since I moved to Vancouver and residing in my current residence up in the sky. I quite like being perched up there with the birds and the early morning misty clouds. I can now sit on the balcony without having that tingly feeling in my legs and do not even notice that I am peering out of the windows at the action below. I find the view of the water and the city comforting in my new home I have dubbed Aquabella. I would say I have adjusted well to my new surrounds.
However this morning I was once again reminded that I am a “newbie” as far as high-riserers (people who live in high-rises) go. For the second time since we made Aquabella our home the fire alarm has gone off. The first time it went off was in the middle of the night and being aroused from sleep it took us a minute or two to figure it out. Knowing the rules about fire alarms and valuing our lives we quickly dressed. I
grabbed my purse and we both took our cell phones and a warm coat in case we
were outside for a long time and we made our way to the stairwell to make the
journey down the 20 plus flights of stairs. Should we lock the door to our unit
or leave it open? A newbie question? We made our lonely way down the stairs with not one other person showing themselves in the stairwell. We wondered what we did not know. By the time we reached the 11th floor we saw the building caretaker who informed us that it in fact was a false alarm and that we could return to our suite. As we ascended the stairs we finally met up with a few people who had begun the trek down. We assured them that it was safe to go back up. We were left with a question about why we had seen so few people in the stairwell and meant to ask about the expected procedures for responding to the fire alarm.
The second fire alarm occurred this morning and before we ever asked our questions about what the expected procedure were. We were both dressed as we had got up early to skype with our daughter who lives in a time zone 8 hours ahead of ours. We wondered what might have caused the alarm but dutifully said our goodbyes to our daughter, gathered our things and again made a very lonely trek down the stairs. This time we made it all the way to the street level before we were joined by three other people. The stairwell led us directly outside and as we went around to the lobby of the building we noticed that about another dozen people were gathered there. After several minutes we for a second time learned that this was another false alarm. I was happy; once the elevators were reset we could return to our home and get on with our day.
The event however brought up an issue in my mind. This is a 27 story building with close to 200 suites so there are probably close to 400 – 500 people in the building. Where were the other hundreds of people? Before we went upstairs I did ask the building caretaker why there were so few people downstairs. The look of disgust mixed with wonder on his face told me the answer before he said “They don’t care. They assume it is a false alarm. They phone me to ask if they should leave and for the most part just do not respond”. I guess I was not totally surprised but still it made me think what made people react this way? Did they really think that it was worth the risk to stay in their suites until they were absolutely sure there was a fire and that they needed to evacuate? What if it was a real fire? Was the effort of walking down the stairs too much effort? Why did people not respond? Was it complacency? Maybe after several false alarms you come to a point of deciding that all alarms are false. That did not seem to make sense to me, we had only had two alarms in the year and a half that we had been in the building and this was not enough to make me complacent.
Then it hit me! It was not complacency or knowledge about the true nature of the alarm, no it was a form of superiority. At first I thought it was arrogance but once I thought more about it I realized that superiority was a better match. One definition of superiority seemed to fit perfectly with what I was seeing: unconcerned: above being affected or influenced by something. The people I did not see in the lobby were indicating to me that they were not influenced by the fire alarm. By their non action they were also unknowingly demonstrating their sense of “superiority”. I believe that this response or lack of response is an example of how our society has allowed us humans to gain a false sense of superiority over nature and over other people. This feeling of superiority impacts how we react to many things including the fire alarm in a
high rise building. The fire alarm incident is the one I am focused on at this
time; however, I believe that this feeling of superiority is rampant in many
areas and facets of western society.
Here we have hundreds of people who have been lulled into thinking that they are above being affected by something as
trivial as a fire alarm. But is it trivial? I am not into fear mongering which
is also common in our world today but I am into being sensible in making the
many choices we are faced with everyday. Responding to a fire alarm fits into the sensible category for me. I think the choice not to respond relates to the common societal thought that it is acceptable to believe that as humans, and in
particular some humans, we are more important than nature including fire and
that our knowledge and significance holds us above all that. Surely we will not
really have to face problems such as vacating a building in the middle of the
night. But why is there that sense? Is it because if they did respond and leave
the building as is the expected thing to do in case of a fire they would show
that they are human with vulnerabilities just like everyone else? We strive
very hard in our western society to hide any vulnerability and to go forth with
a stiff upper lip. Would this not be threatened by a simple plebeian common
response to the fire alarm?
This morning the alarm was in fact a false one and no one was hurt or even threatened by real danger having stayed in their suites. No the real threat or danger comes from the false sense of superiority that so many people seem to have acquired. I believe many people are not even aware that this has developed within them and that it impacts the choices that they make. No harm done in the case of our morning alarm but I get the sense that the harm is done in how we make other choices in how we respond to others less fortunate than ourselves, how we make decisions that impact our environment and how we generally lead our lives. Maybe talking about how we
respond or not respond to the fire alarm would give us an opportunity to start
to talk about how we might have mistakenly developed our false sense of
superiority, accepting our basic human characteristic of vulnerability shared
amongst all and come to terms with a more balanced approach to our position in
the world. Maybe this is an opportunity to start examining the many choices we
are making every day and examine these choices in a new light. That would be
nice. Regardless I will still walk down the 2o some flights of stairs when the
fire alarm goes off and maybe I will meet more people on the stairs as I do.
Maybe we will feel comfortable being open about our humanity and our common
need to feel safe and supported.