Monday, September 24, 2012


It happens every few months on campus. The emergency lights start to blink, the siren sound goes on and a prerecorded voice calmly announces that an emergency has been reported. Whatever it is that you're doing, you must drop it. The whole building must evacuate. A lot of times it's just a fire drill. A few years ago there was some malfunction due to construction. I also remember there was a time when one of the employees was suspected of pulling the lever intentionally a few times a month. Not to long ago a very young and inexperienced night manager evacuated the entire student union building with a few floors of hotel above it. Whatever the reason, it's treated very seriously and according to procedure. Elevators shut down, the rooms close and we will not go back until we are given permission. Most of the time we're just waiting for firefighters to arrive, because most of the time it's nothing. Most of the time. Emergency is an emergency and it's better to be safe and sorry.

It's not having to go that concerns me, but what appears to be a complete lack of procedures for people in wheelchairs in situations like this. While the building staff is busy organizing the crowds to head for the stairs in an orderly fashion nobody seems to be too concerned about what will happen to me and that I could be stuck on one of the upper floors. It happened again this Friday. I was at the Reitz Union, the student activity building watching a weekly movie in the auditorium when alarms went off. The voice tells you not to use the elevators, but I knew I had to break the procedure and get to one before they are turned off only to be reactivated by the firefighters. I was on the second floor. If only I was lower, if only I chose to get a slice of Papa John's pizza instead of watching Madagascar 3, I could've wheeled out down the colonnade that connects to the campus theater and go down the ramp to safety. But there are no ramps or connectors, no alternative ways to get out or get down if you can't take the stairs or the elevators on the second floor. This happened before- I was on the third floor in the computer lab when the alarms went off. The student supervisors were told to close it and not reopen until the firefighters gave it an "all clear". As everybody evacuated, I was told to stay in the stairway. On the third floor. When I was in high school and we had a fire drill, my classmates would  carry me down the stairs, sometimes in a desk chair I was sitting in. In America, everybody is afraid of liability, so no one would move me or touch me. The students were told not to do it, but neither did the police and fire rescue that arrived at the building. I was stuck in the third floor stairway until the alarms went off and no one was too concerned to help me move. The computer lab supervisor offered to stay behind to keep me company, but nothing was happening. I guess the stairway door were fireproof so this kind of makes sense. But note, we had no idea what kind of emergency it was. Was it a fire, was it a bomb, was it a chemical spill? Is the fear of getting sued for injuring me greater that the risk of me losing a life? Would I have stayed there until the building burned down?

So this time I did go down one floor. In an elevator. We gathered on the colonnade, that we were soon told to get off and stand next to the building. As if those few feet really make a difference between life and death. But  I guess, those are the rules and that's the procedure. Because most of the time it's nothing, right? Most of the time

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