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A Fire Alarm Sounds, but the Fear Is of Appearing Foolish

The nightclub fire tragedy in New York City last week in which 87 people died got me thinking about a recent afternoon at the movies with my wife and stepson.

It was a Saturday, and we had gone to Hutton Centre in Santa Ana to see “Rosalie Goes Shopping,” which attracted us because it is from the team that made “Baghdad Cafe.” We were in the middle of the picture--which is less than gripping--when the theater fire alarm went off.

This was no timid sound. It brought back rather vividly the air alerts of almost 50 years ago--a kind of controlled shriek, repeated every few seconds, that says loud and clear, “There’s danger here, so get out of the area.”

The theater--one of four in the Edwards complex--was perhaps one-third full. The reaction of the crowd--and of my family and me--in our theater was at first curious, then incredible.

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We did nothing.

We sat in our seats and looked at the movie, which continued to run. The fire alarm’s shrieks drowned out the film soundtrack, so this was rather like watching a silent movie with a siren accompaniment. But that’s what we did for what seemed an eternity but was probably no longer than five minutes.

The audience did not look at one another, although we were conscious of the lack of movement in the theater and activated our sensors to check what the other members of the audience might be up to. No one, it seemed, wanted to make the first move. Finally my wife, concerned for her son, sent him out into the lobby. She and I followed a few seconds later; then others began to straggle out.

In the lobby, it became apparent that the same thing had been happening in the other theaters--a few stragglers wandered out, but the rest were still anchored to their seats.

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Then the projectors were cut off and a young man who apparently was the manager ran into each theater telling people that there was no cause for alarm but that they should leave as quickly as possible. Only then did they leave their seats, streaming into the lobby and out onto the sidewalk in front of the building. There, the manager announced that the alarm had apparently been tripped accidentally and that the shows would resume when it was turned off. A fire truck came, explored and left.

We decided to wait it out. I had a lot of time to think before the film resumed. And, of course, the thought foremost in my mind was: “What if there really had been a fire? Most of us probably would have been trapped in the theater and been suffocated or incinerated.”

So why did we sit there instead of getting the hell out?

As my wife and I played with this question, several possible answers emerged. The most likely explanation seemed to be a fear of looking foolish or frightened among our peers. Had one person broken for the exit, we all probably would have followed. But none of us wanted to take that first step for fear of being branded--as what? A coward? An alarmist?

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Or as a rational human being reacting quickly and decisively to a warning of danger? That, of course, is how each of us should have seen it, but none of us did.

Some other thoughts came up. There is, for example, the perpetual American need for someone in authority to tell us what to do, even when that authority is resented. Once the manager went into the theaters, the people left. But not before.

And there was the sense that it couldn’t be real. I’m sure that being immersed in the make-believe of a movie aided and abetted the feeling that there wasn’t really a fire, that it would all pass quickly. Somehow that sense of unreality seemed to translate to the very real shriek of the siren.

These disturbing thoughts were submerged as we returned to the movie, but they returned in force when I read about the victims of the New York fire. I wondered if an alarm had gone off there and whether it would have saved them if it had. I called Jim Edwards, who runs the theaters in which the incident took place, to ask him why the alarm had sounded and what had been expected of the people in the audiences.

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He seemed surprised to hear that people had stayed in their seats. He said that a fire alarm switch had apparently been tripped by a prankster and that it took almost 20 minutes to get it turned off. “When that alarm goes off,” he said, “we expect people to vacate the theater as soon as possible.”

So I went looking for an authority to try to discover why we didn’t. Finding one wasn’t easy. I was referred to two sociologists at UC Irvine, but both said this sort of question isn’t in their fields of specialization and that they would not want to be quoted by name. But they gave me some opinions that were rather well summarized by the one who said: “There are a variety of considerations, but one of the biggest has to be the nature of authority. People just don’t believe things from authority any more, and that alarm represented authority. They can feel an earthquake, but until they can see or smell a fire, they are likely to question the authority that warns them about it. This same thing could have happened in other settings where authority is called into question.”

A psychiatrist who also said crowd behavior is not in his speciality suggested that “there was probably a subliminal feeling that this wasn’t real, helped along by the movie and the setting and also by the feeling that most such alarms are usually false.”

He told me a story about being with a patient when the most recent earthquake struck. The patient got up and started to leave, but when he told her that the clock was still running, she hesitated, then sat down. “Now,” he said, “you have learned the meaning of ambivalence.”

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Well, I’ve decided not to be ambivalent the next time I hear one of those alarms. I’d rather take the chance of being looked on as an alarmist than of being incinerated.


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