Fireman’s lift

Last Friday at 1530 at work an ear-splitting electronic screech sounded through the entire building, lasting for several minutes. I was prepared for the noise, just not the volume. I donned my flourescent jacket and set about evacuating all the offices on my floor.

The noise was a fire alarm, and I’m an EPI.

EPI stands for Equipier de Première Intervention, which I guess translates as something like Fire Safety Officer? Basically I’ve been trained to put out fires and lead people out of burning buildings to safety. In reality all we’re expected to do is check every office and make sure everyone goes down the emergency stairwell (no, don’t take the lift!) and outside to the meeting point where we wait for the professionals to arrive and handle the hot stuff.

The exercise on this occasion was slightly compromised. In order to be an effective simulation it had to be a surprise (fires don’t usually give two weeks notice before they start), but the department responsible for organising the exercise is obliged to inform the top levels of the hierarchy so that it doesn’t interfere with any major meetings, and once the bosses and their assistants know…well, information wants to be free, as they say. By the time the alarm sounded at least a third of the staff (including myself and many of my immediate colleagues) were already well aware of what was going on, and some of them had pre-emptively gone out for a coffee or a cigarette. Those that did evacuate properly often got distracted on the walk to the meeting point and found themselves in a nearby café instead. After the entire building had been cleared and we headed back, some colleagues mysteriously never made it back inside. Who would have thought that would happen, during an evacuation exercise at 4pm on an unseasonably sunny Friday afternoon?

I was first trained as an EPI a couple of years ago, just after I joined the organisation. I was prompted to join up by the prospect of being allowed to play with fire extinguishers and getting an extra day off per year able to provide a valuable service to my colleagues and employer. The initial training session lasted one whole day: theory in the morning, practice in the afternoon. Only the “practice” became all too real for a couple of members. Once exercise involved using small, handheld extinguishers to put out a fire in a small container of flammable liquid. We took it in turns, and once I’d done mine I moved to the back of the room. As my back was turned I heard a loud “whoomff!” and I turned to see a large fireball heading towards the ceiling and one of the trainee EPIs running across the room screaming, flames licking around her head and catching her hair where it poked out from underneath her helmet. Apparently the guy refilling the containers after each person had extinguished them hadn’t been paying attention properly.

Two people were sent to hospital for minor burns to their head and face, and shortly afterwards my employer decided to switch to another training company. I’m due to attend my annual refresher course next month.