I have been here at USE long enough now to know that we always have a fire drill at precisely 10.40 am on the second Thursday of term.
The first time it caught me by surprise. I was in the computer labs with a class of students and some of them were reluctant to leave until they had completed their work and properly logged out of the system.
Then Molly came into the room wearing a bright orange Fire Marshal's jacket, "Come on, come on" she said "This could be a real fire!"
She shepherded us out of the room, along the corridor and down the stairs where we merged with people coming from the floors higher up in the building.
Eventually we spilled out of the front door and onto the concourse where other staff who had been recruited as Fire Marshals made sure that we moved sufficiently far away from the building. Colin the caretaker was there too with a clipboard and a stopwatch.
Clusters of people who knew each other had formed, generally with students going one way and staff the other. I spotted Gus, Jack and Richard and went over to join them. By now most people seemed to be out of the building. But I noticed a group of several middle aged women that I didn't recognise. When I asked the others if they knew who they were I was told that they were from the Faculty Office on Floor 3. "You don't see them much" said Richard. "They don't usually come out from behind their security barrier!". "What do they do?" I asked. "Admin, Finance, Placements, Alumni. Lots of paperwork and form filling" said Gus.
By now a lot of people who had come out of the building had dispersed. Students who didn't have a follow up class at 11 had gone home or to the Library, Students' Union or the cafeteria.
Colin and Molly came over to us. "Seventeen minutes" said Colin. "Not very good. A lot of you might not have made it out if it had been a real fire".
Gus said "Anyone got a class now? If not, let's go to the cafeteria".
When we got there we found a long queue of people waiting for coffee. Richard volunteered to wait in the queue while the rest of us found a table.
When we were seated Gus said "These fire drills always remind me of that time in Boston when I went to the ASSA convention to give a paper back in the nineties." He told us that he had experienced a wearing transatlantic flight.There had been a lot of turbulence and he was very tired when he arrived at his hotel. As he was due to give a paper the next day he had decided to get an early night.
Around one o'clock in the morning he had been woken by a loud booming American voice that seemed to be coming from the ceiling. It said that there was fire alert and that we should leave the building immediately by the stairs. It turns out that in the hotel instead of a fire bell to alert people to a fire they had a pre-recorded message that they played through a special speaker system. Anyway, Gus told us that he grabbed his coat which he put on over his pajamas, put on some shoes and left his room. People were shuffling down the corridor towards the stairs. Some were fully dressed with hats and scarves on.
Gus said that he was on the eighteenth floor so it took ages to get down to ground floor level. Once outside he found that heavy snow was falling. It was nearly half an hour before he eventually got back to his room by which time he was very cold as well as tired. In fact he was so exhausted that he found it difficult to go back to sleep. And people were outside in the corridor talking about what had happened for quite a while too.
In the morning he asked the hotel receptionist if there had actually been a fire. No, he was told, it was just a student prank. Apparently some local college students had heard that the hotel was full of economists in the city for a convention (or conference as we would call it) and they thought it would be a laugh to set off the fire alarm to get them all out of the building.
"Some of those students might even be professors now" said Gus. "Or maybe even a Dean" he added as he looked out of the window to see Dr Paige Turner our Dean go past. "Didn't she get her degree from Harvard?!"