Asleep at the Switch
Shrill Emergency Alarms Shriek,
But Shopping Goes on As Usual
By Edward Shanahan
We were nearly through, except for picking up the bread and containers of orange and grapefruit juice, when the ceiling alarms started shrieking and red lights began pulsing at the Stop and Shop supermarket on King Street last Saturday afternoon.
Despite the piercing, even painful, sound of the alarms no one appeared to be worried—neither the shoppers nor employees— who might have numbered as many as 200 or 300.
No one asked what was going on. No employees surfaced to give guidance and the customer service desk, ignoring the penetrating screeches, continued making those dreary “customers your order is ready at the deli” announcements, so all must be normal.
People continued to shop, pretending there was nothing wrong; as if they always heard these high-tech, state of the art alarms when they shopped.
And, still the alarms continued unabated, so I headed from the back aisle and the meat department to the front of the store and the checkout area. I asked several cash register clerks what was going on but they had they had no idea. Nor did they suggest I leave the store.
One clerk said he believed maybe a wire has been disturbed by workmen who were making repairs upstairs in the administrative offices.
So I spoke to two women who were staffing the customer service desk, and they said they had no idea what was wrong, nor did they tell me to leave the building. “Who’s in charge?” I asked. They said the manager or managers were outside the building. They had no clue what was happening.
Puzzled, I returned to our shopping cart; we picked up the remaining few items, headed quickly for the checkout counter, waited in line briefly, emptied our cart, helped pack the canvas bags, ran our debit card through the machine, and still the alarms were going off. And people were still coming into the building to begin their shopping, no attempt made to prevent them from entering.
At that point, as we began moving toward the exit, we could see a Fire Department command vehicle at the front door, along with a fire engine.
And at this point, word was finally passed somehow by someone that that this was an emergency, and everyone had to leave the building, even those waiting in line to be checked out. Some customers were really annoyed. Yet there were no store personnel on hand to direct, or hasten, the exit, which went exceedingly slowly.
I could be wrong, but I estimated that between 5 and 10 minutes elapsed from the time I first heard the alarm and when we finally were out the door and headed for the parking lot, even as more cars continued to enter the lot to begin their weekend shopping. Quickly, what we used to call a hook and ladder truck followed by an ambulance raced into the parking lot.
Asked about the timing and how soon the Fire Department had responded to the alarm, Fire Chief Brian Duggan said it had been “fairly quick,” but could not give a precise timetable. He said the response probably was activated within 90 seconds, but it might have taken 3 or 4 minutes for the equipment to get to the store, which is only a few hundred yards north on King Street, and then begin ordering people to “self-evacuate.”
Asked if businesses as large as Stop and Shop have evacuation plans of their own, which should have cleared the store immediately, Duggan was somewhat unclear on that point.
He said he planned talk to the manager, John Laflamme, about precisely what he or his staff did to alert their customers that there was an emergency and that they should leave the store at once. He said he will ask Laflamme to put “in writing” what action he and others at the store took to get customers to leave the store.
As it turned out the emergency was caused by a rupture of a refrigeration line that resulted in fumes and vapor. It took the Fire Department abut 2 1/2 hours to disperse the fumes so the store could reopen. No fire, no bomb threat, but still an emergency.
Duggan said he had monitored the incident by radio at the time, but was not personally on hand.
He said that one problem is that the public generally has become “complacent” about fire alarms going off, so they tend not to react, citing as a example the frequent alarms that sound at the Conz Street Housing for the Elderly building without a single person leaving the building.
He said fire personnel should not have to take valuable time during an emergency to conduct evacuations. That only prevents them from dealing quickly with the cause of the emergency.
While he said he would be out of town for several days, Duggan indicated he would seek further investigation by his deputy chiefs and a report of what exactly happened at the Stop and Shop on Feb. 7. He said he was glad to hear from someone who was actually in the store at the time of the incident.
Meanwhile, in a telephone interview, Laflamme said that he was aware alarms had gone off, and he had checked into what might be the problem He determined the emergency alert was being caused by a refrigeration leak. By that time, he said, the Fire Department had arrived and people were told to leave the store. His long experience at the store, he said, enabled him to conclude that the problem was not a serious one.
However, for those continuing to shop there was no sign of Laflamme, which is unusual because his presence at the store is ubiquitous.
He did not indicate that the store had an evacuation plan in place for just such a contingency or that all store personnel were trained to know how to react when an alarm sounded.
In fact, he said he would not want to leave an evacuation order up to “part-time” employees. It was better for him to make decision himself.
What, Laflamme was asked, if the emergency had been a fire, and it took almost 10 minutes for the Fire Department to get the message out that customers and employees should leave the building?
Isn’t that why schools and courthouses and other public buildings are routinely emptied when an emergency alarm sounds? Isn’t that a public safety issue? Don’t businesses and other places where large numbers of people convene, hold fire drills?
“Okay, point taken,” he replied.
“I understand what you’re saying … I do appreciate your input.”
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