Pilot Lifestyle
It’s a fire
September 3, 2013

“Whooop, Whoooop, Whoooop.”

I’d been asleep for a little over two hours.  My eyes opened wide and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest.

“CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE? The signal you just heard indicates a fire has been reported in the hotel.  Please proceed to the nearest exit…”

If the speakers were located only in the hallway, the unexpected wake up would have been a little more graceful.  All these noises were being broadcast from a red box just above my bed… at a level a few decibels north of acceptable.

I’ve stayed at this particular Philadelphia hotel five times.  This was the second time peaceful sleep was interrupted by the hotel’s fire alarm system.  The last time was winter.  If I went downstairs, at least I wasn’t going to freeze like I did in February.

If I went downstairs.

Hotel fire alarms should be taken seriously.  In 1980, a fire claimed the lives of eighty five people at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.  Many of the deaths were attributed to smoke inhalation.  (People with more time to research have compiled a thorough history of hotel fires in the United States.  If you’re interested, you can read it here.)  An actual fire in a hotel can be catastrophic.  As a new hire pilot, I was taught to always form a quick escape plan upon arriving at any hotel.

However, when the alarm sounds, I generally treat it with as much respect as the boy who cried wolf.  I’ve simply been through too many false alarms over the years.

I begrudgingly walked over to the door and felt that it was cold.  (Proof that some things you learn in the first grade stick with you.)

As I looked out the peep hole, I saw our lead flight attendant’s door open with her head peeking into the hallway.  If there had been any odor, she would not have looked so calm and annoyed.  Since there was no immediate danger, I dressed and grabbed my cell phone, room key and wallet.  If there had been smoke or flames in the hallway, all modesty would have gone out the window.

When I opened my door, our lead and another flight attendant were standing with one foot out in the hallway.  We decided to wait a minute to see if the alarm stopped.  While we waited, I opened the door to the stairwell… no smoke.  I figured we had a safe path from the fifth floor down to the ground level.

A few minutes later, the siren and voice continued to wail.

“Ugh. Let’s go.”

As I said, all alarms need to be taken seriously.  Even though it had a sprinkler system, the hotel was a very old building that would fuel flames nicely.

We joined the crowd of sleepy people walking down the stairs.  In those situations, I breathe solely through my nose.  As long as the air entering my nostrils is clean, I’m content with a leisurely pace as we descend.

At the street level, we joined a few hundred other people crowding the narrow urban road.  An oblivious pizza delivery man was walking into the hotel as the firetrucks parked out front.  None of the firefighters appeared to be in a hurry.  Moments later, word spread through the crowd that it was a false alarm.  Big surprise.  This time, it was not the hotel’s fault.  Some jerk pulled one of the wall units just down the hall from the lobby.

The lines for the elevators were too unreasonable to wait.  We climbed back up the stairs to the fifth floor.

I plugged my cellphone back into the charger, made sure the alarm was still set and laid my head down on the pillow.  I hoped I’d be able to fall back asleep.

As pilots, it is our responsibility to report to work well rested.  The new “rest rules” starting in January will require me to sign a piece of paper stating that I am fit to fly.  (The current rule allows me to state I’m “fatigued” if I feel I’m not rested.  I’m not entirely sure how my signature before every flight will enhance safety.)  My optimum amount of sleep is eight hours… although, I can function on six.

If I couldn’t fall back asleep, I would have been forced to call in”fatigued” for the first time in my career.  The other four members of the crew were facing the same dilemma.  If any of us were unable to operate the flight, many people would have been inconvenienced.  There are no “reserves” at out-stations.  The last thing I wanted was to disrupt the operation… but, safety is paramount.

Fortunately, I was able to fall back asleep and get enough rest to operate safely.

In the morning, we boarded a full load of guests to head back to Los Angeles.  The airport was strangely quiet.  We taxied to runway 9L with no aircraft in front of us.  Seven minutes after push back, we were in the air.

That was the only leg we operated that day.  After a few hours at LAX, we rode in the back on a scheduled deadhead up to Seattle.  After a nice downtown layover, we flew down to San Francisco and back across the country to Philadelphia.

Tonight, I’m back at the same Philly hotel.  I’m in a different room, overlooking a different part of this historic city.  But, I still have one of those darn red speakers on the wall above the bed.

Hopefully, I’ll get through tonight without it causing any drama.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

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About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 11 comments

  • Pam Deveau says:

    I have been awoken twice by a fire alarm and once by an earthquake at hotels. Neither are pleasant experiences. Based on your subject line, I was relieved to see it was a hotel fire and not an aircraft fire!!! Next time…get out more quickly. I know they’re often false alarms, but your life could depend on it. You have lots of people depending on you…

  • No Fly Zone says:

    Good Post and very relevant. Despite far too many nights in hotel rooms, I’ve been rousted by a fire alarm only once. Like you holder hotel it was an older building, so I took the false alarm seriously and vacated.
    In another instance I worked in a 1912 building of 11 stories, a sky scraper in that era. It too was a fire trap, but had repeatedly been renovated to comply with fire standards, in part because most of the building was occupied for a local government agency. We were well trained in executing the evacuation plan and the mandatory drills were monthly. Likely because building also included the Building and Safety department, we drilled every two weeks, often with the usual grumbling. One day that was a real fire. The entire building was quickly lost. All occupants, including a number of non-staff quests quickly evacuated, Without a Single Injury. Need I say more? I like your blog!

  • PHLRick says:

    Worse than fire alarms are drunken partiers in adjacent rooms and roaming the corridors. When the fire alarm is turned off, it stays off; the drunks just go on and on.

    7 minutes from push to wheels-up at PHL is amazing–I can only recall that happening when flights have been delayed until about midnight.

    • I agree. I could write a whole post on hotel etiquette. Not that it would matter… Those people would never read it.

      The flight was on the holiday. On Wednesday, on the same flight at the same time, we were number ten for takeoff. Still not bad for PHL.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Alex says:

    Hello from the UK!
    I have been meaning to post for a while now as I stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago, and since then I have been intrigued by your posts since! Every time I read your latest blog I can’t wait for something else to be typed up! Infact the first time I found your blog, I spent a couple of hours reading every single post!
    I just wanted to say your an absolute inspiration for wanna-be pilots like me (whether it will happen for me I really don’t know, as it’s a career with a massive price tag!), I bet your so proud!

    Anyways, I’m sure you’ll hear from me again later on down your blog.
    Hope you get chance to read this and reply, and for god sakes, please don’t ever stop blogging! 🙂


  • Many years ago, I served in the British Merchant Navy as an Engineering Officer, specialising in electrics.

    I arranged with the Chief Eng. to test all the sirens, and as we were a fully-laden tanker, permission was rapidly granted.

    I broadcast a warning over the tannoy about five times, then pressed the ‘Emergency’ button on the bridge. I had staff stationed all over the vessel to report if all the sirens fired off, but the image which forever remains in my mind is of a stark-naked junior engineer scrambling at speed down the cat-walk towards his duty station in the engine-room, trying to kick his legs into his boiler suit as he staggered along. He was the only man who hadn’t been given or heard the warning, as he claimed to have been fast asleep.

    Happy days!

    Like your blog!

  • Brad Tate says:

    Hmm..been there many times. Like you, I have a hard time believing the fire alarm and rarely get out of bed unless the darn thing sounds for at least 5 minutes or more. Precious minutes if the place is ever really on fire. Shame on me!

  • […] Although almost always false, alarms in hotels need to be taken seriously.  To learn more on my thoughts on fire alarms, feel free to read this story. […]

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