I started today with an early-morning water aerobics class at my health club. This is something I do several days a week, especially when I have a busy day and want to get my workout in right at the beginning.
Everything was fine until I walked out of the locker room into the corridor that leads to the pool. It was filled with the smell of natural gas (more accurately, the smell gas companies add to odorless natural gas so one can detect a leak.) At the end of that corridor is the machine room that holds the pool heater and the fan that keeps the bubble up along with other equipment about which I know nothing.
A Strong Smell
I went into the pool enclosure and told the lifeguard, Bill, what I smelled. He called the desk and reported it immediately. Other people arrived and said the smell had gotten stronger.
I thought about how quickly and easily people go into denial when presented with a problem. I remembered what Amanda Ripley wrote about the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire in her book The Unthinkable about how people in authority often respond to a crisis situation—or even to a warning that one might exist.
It’s a natural human tendency to ignore or avoid something that might make one look silly or create a problem. And it’s much easier to do nothing than it is to figure out what needs to be done and take action. I thought about the house I used to commute past that was demolished by a gas explosion.
Unsure What to Do
After a few minutes of the class I got out and asked Bill what people at the front desk were doing.
“They don’t seem to know what to do,” he said.”
“Tell them to call the Fire Department,” I replied, “But if they’re not going to do anything, tell me and I’m leaving.”
He got back on the phone and then assured me that they had reported the leak to the Fire Department.
Checking Things Out
We continued with the class and both fire and police responders arrived a few minutes later. They checked everything out and then came into the pool enclosure to let us know that there was no problem. They also commented that we had done the right thing by taking action and reporting the leak. At that point, we could continue the class without worrying whether the whole building would blow up.
As Ms. Ripley says in The Unthinkable, the most important way to survive a disaster is to prepare for one. That means accepting that the unthinkable might actually happen to you and taking steps to either avoid it or escape it.
If you accept that a crisis can happen and then train on how to address it, you are less likely to freeze or go into denial when something out of the ordinary does occur. This is one of the things the military teaches. This is why schools and companies conduct fire drills.
Insisting on Action
I might have overreacted but I don’t think so. The firemen didn’t think so. And Bill, who had been fire fighter in California, didn’t think so. But I am the only person who insisted on action.
Afterward, people in the class thanked me for pushing to get something done. I’m sure the folks at the desk thought I was a pain in the neck but that’s OK. We had the best of all possible outcomes—nothing happened.