(I took first place in a speech contest with the below—this is not a transcript of my talk, but a close approximation)
The fire alarm was not a rehearsal. But I was unaware—sound asleep.
I slept through multiple knocks on my door as I drifted from dreamland to reality. I vaguely heard conversations in the hallway and thought, “Who would be talking at this late hour? How rude.”
I was startled by pounding on my door. The knocking had turned to banging.
“Just a minute, I’m coming.”
I got out of bed, put on my slippers, and opened the door. The frantic individual said, “The building fire alarm is going off!”
“Okay, I’ll get my clothes on.”
I put on a pair of pants, a warm-up jacket, and my glasses. Then I grabbed my winter coat and stepped into the hallway.
The blaring alarm and the people heading to the staircase suggested the fire was real. I reflected on my training and decided to focus on three skills to help others.
Everyone can help others by demonstrating three values people seek from a leader during a crisis: honesty, clarity, and consistency.
A woman from the far end of the hallway shouted, “Is it real?”
“Yes,” I responded. While I wasn’t sure, I was confident that the late hour suggested it was not a drill. A sensor had to have detected something. There had to be a real threat, but how significant was yet to be determined.
Referring to her husband, the woman said, “We can’t use the elevator during a fire, so we have to stay in our designated area until the firemen can move us. We have a phone number to call.”
I had no idea my words could impact such an important decision about calling that special phone number.
Had I chosen to comfort and relieve their worry by saying, “No,” the firemen would never have known they were in the building. The couple needed the unadulterated truth. I was thankful my answer was “Yes.”
I made my way to the lobby. A group was arguing about whether the alarm was real. Some just wanted to delay standing in the wintery night.
I shared a clear and succinct message for everyone to move outside. I stated clear and simple action steps and headed toward the door. Others followed.
The firetruck pulled up as we exited the building. The response time could’ve been better for a station three blocks away. But the delay did give us time to get out of the building.
As the firemen headed inside, a few people asked me what would happen next. I said, “The firemen will read the lobby control panel to determine what sensor set off the alarm and head to that room.”
Shoulders drop and people relaxed a bit. A sense of peace came over those who heard the clear truth. While we didn’t know the outcome, honesty coupled with clarity reduced the anxiety level of others.
I saw the Lieutenant open a door and watched smoke billow into the hallway. The fire was real.
What I observed were firemen that weren’t concerned. That made me curious as I watched the smoke dissipate. There was very little smoke, which raised a few questions in my mind.
None of the firemen headed to the fire engine for more equipment or hoses. That suggested the fire was contained or small enough to handle with a fire extinguisher.
I found the Lieutenant to learn the facts.
He said, “There was a small electrical fire, but we couldn’t find the source. The room was sealed, and the smoke absorbed the oxygen and extinguished the fire. You’re all set. Call us if the fire starts up again.”
The Lieutenant’s comment didn’t give me any hope, but his clarity reduced my concerns. Since the room held new water heaters, it was possible the smoke was caused by a label burning off a hot metal piece. There was no real threat.
As the firetrucks left, a few residents hounded me for information. I quieted the group and led them into the water heater room. A few entered, but most stayed at the door and peeked inside.
Consistency was foremost on my mind. I needed to speak honestly and clearly, as I had already done, to maintain consistency. The reason for consistency is to build trust.
I said, “There was a small electrical fire that produced enough smoke to put itself out due to the lack of oxygen in the room. The Lieutenant didn’t see any threat at this time.”
One woman asked, “Is there anything we can do to avoid this issue in the future?”
“No specific cause was mentioned, except that the equipment detected and labeled the fire as an electrical fire. The only thing I can see is that the three water heaters are plugged into the same extension cord. However, the Lieutenant said there was enough amperage to cover the electrical draw of all three water heaters on the same outlet, so it wasn’t the cause.”
I suggested that the board could consider running conduit with separate outlet boxes to each machine, but it wasn’t necessary.
Then I realized some people just needed to hear that everything was clear, so I said, “There were no signs of fire or cause that needed to be addressed tonight. The fire is over, there is no longer a threat, and I’m returning to bed.”
The crowd dispersed with enough confidence in our safety to sleep well.
My attempt at leadership in a crisis was complete. Everyone was comfortable with heading back to their condos. The evening was a success because I demonstrated honesty, clarity, and consistency during a crisis.
Should you one day find yourself in a crisis, help those around you by demonstrating honesty, clarity, and consistency.
Copyright © 2023 by CJ Powers