[I'm foregoing the usual Saturday miscellany for a Very Special Built on Facts. It's important!]
Imagine a basketball sitting on the top of a hill. The slope of the hill is pretty gentle, and so you can roll the ball around a bit without the risk of it rolling away. But hit it too hard and it’s going to catch the slope and zoom off. You and many of the materials which surround you are not so different. They’re made of atoms which are comfortable so long as you don’t hit them very hard. But hit them hard enough with oxygen molecules and they’ll go flying away. And they’ll hit other molecules and send them flying away attached to atmospheric oxygen too.
We call this fire.
Today got approval to buy some anhydrous ethanol for some more stinky pyridine measurements, and almost no sooner had I walked out of the office when the fire alarm sounded. The office is on the 4th floor and I was already headed out, so I adjusted my trajectory a bit from the elevator to the stairs. From the time the alarm sounded to the time I was outside was about 20 seconds. I like my molecules where they are.
So do most people, but unfortunately most people’s response to fire alarms is pretty lax. People look around and dither, and watch other people look around and dither. We’re herd creatures and so stasis breeds stasis. Then they stand around some more to wait for smoke, and eventually they start to leave. If they’re lucky they can. If they’re not then exits might be blocked by fire or stampeding crowds, assuming they haven’t already succumbed to heat or smoke. Fire requires heat energy, and that energy builds up rapidly in a burning building. The growth is exponential – it can’t escape to the outside and so it’s absorbed by ts surroundings, setting them on fire. Which produces more heat, growing the cycle. The exponential function grows shockingly fast, and so do building fires. If you want to see some truly harrowing footage look for the video of The Station nightclub fire. I’m not directly linking the video because it’s pretty disturbing. I do recommend watching this video reproducing the event under controlled conditions.
From ignition to everyone still inside being dead takes about 90 seconds. And most of those 90 seconds are before matters look serious – by the time black smoke starts billowing escape would be nearly impossible. New buildings with sprinklers and fire-resistant materials can extend this time considerably, but as a rule you should assume you have 90 seconds to be outside or dead. That’s a minute and a half; it’s plenty of time for calm and measured action. You don’t have to run or panic but you do need to get out. If you wait, by the time the situation is obviously serious you may have already sealed your own fate.
Pay attention to emergency exits too. Few people do, and it’s to their detriment. Numerous observations have demonstrated that people tend to automatically leave by the door they entered, even if there are other doors closer. Knowing this you can avoid the instinct.
You might be able to tell that I was raised by a fire investigator. Well, I haven’t died in a fire yet. If you pay attention during fire drills (and keep your smoke detectors functioning at home), you probably won’t either!