“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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