Sunday, April 7, 2019

How I pulled the fire alarm in my apartment complex

This is an embarrassing story for me. But I guess I should talk about it for sake of transparency. You have a right to know what kind of person's paper reviews, TLA+ models, distributed systems musings, Paxos commentary, and life/research advice you are reading. Yep, I am the kind of goofy guy that triggers the fire alarm for the entire complex unknowingly but inevitably.

The Background

This happened on Sunday, August 5, 2018. (Yes, I have been too embarrassed to post this any earlier.) It was only 6 days after we moved into our apartment as part of my sabbatical at Microsoft Cosmos DB.

So that morning, we were about to leave home for grocery shopping. With 3 kids leaving the house is a ...process. You get them ready, you convince them about leaving house. And they somehow can detect desperation in you and drag their feet if you like them to leave soon. It seems like my kids derive pleasure on being the last one to leave the house, the last one to put on shoes, or the last one to get into the car. Any ways this takes a good 20 minutes some days.

So the process is happening and they are slowly preparing to leave. And I leave the apartment to start waiting for them outside the door, in order to show them how serious I am about leaving and we are about to leave.



Just outside our door, there is this red box for fire alarm just outside our apartment. This is normally where the doorbell should be in any sensibly designed building. But for some reason, in our apartment complex, this is where they decided the fire alarm should be.

I am very distressed about this fire alarm being right next to our door. I am scared that one of my kids, maybe the 7 year old, or the 3.5 year old would open this box and then set off the fire alarm.

Trainwreck in motion  

So I am thinking that I should take a closer look at this box, and see if my kids might accidentally set it off. This way I can warn them about this danger-box.

The box is dusty, so I dust it off. And I proceed to open the box, to see what kind of button or arm mechanism the box has inside. This is because I want to tell my kids to stay away from it. You know, for science. (Yeah, that is not very solid reasoning, which will become clear to me soon.)

Anyhow, I open the box; it opens easily. And in this 3 seconds after opening the box, I realize I have gone too far and did something very wrong. Of course the arm is the box itself, there is no arm or button in the box!!

And 1, 2, 3... The shit hits the fan. All the fire alarms in the apartment complex starts screaming!

I try to close the box, but of course it is triggered. And can't be closed.

The fire alarm is too loud. And first I am in denial. This can't be happening. I shouldn't have set off the fire alarm for the entire complex by opening this box, I am innocent.

Every one starts leaving their apartments, and start looking around to see what is wrong. I am still standing in front of the box, trying to figure out what to do. I can't think of anything except that this can not happening.

The old lady above our apartment walks outside and asks me what happened. I told her I set off the fire alarm accidentally. She said she will look for the number of the apartment manager so they can come reset it. Another lady next door comes out alarmed, I also admit her that I had triggered the alarm.

Now there is a crowd in front of the apartment complex. And I have to come clean to them. An old guy from the adjoint apartment block says "Jesus" after hearing my explanation. I think he might have said "what a dork" under his breath. And he tells others "He set off the alarm". Again, I am pretty desensitized to all this because I am still shocked by this thing.

The alarms are blaring and the old lady tells me we should call 911 and ask the firefighters to come reset the thing. I call 911, and ask the firefighters. We are next to the fire station so it takes them 3 minutes to get here. Of course they come with the big red truck, and all in suites. They can not be unprepared. They always need to arrive with their entire equipment and tools. Those may be need.

I show them the box. One of them takes a look. But then of course before resetting the box, they need to first disarm the control panel so the sound can stop. Our neighbor tells them about it. Turns out the plans they brought for the apartment complex is outdated, and they didn't have this marked up in there. So a couple of them goes that way. And after a minute, the sounds stop. Oh, bliss, finally.

One of the firefighter says to the waiting crowd, "Thank you everyone  for adhering the rules. Going out is the right thing to do when fire alarm sets off". The firefighter is friendly but rubs it in my face that I set off the alarm.

He then proceeds to the box with a ring of 20-30 keys. He tries them one by one on the box to find a fitting key. These must be the master keys for the companies that build fire alarms. One of them fits eventually. And the box is reset, triggered, and shut down again.

The mousetrap is set again.

Then another firefighter goes back to the control panel behind the building to arm the system again. They are done. This is probably all within 15 minutes from when I set it off to when they are done. The firefighter chief says this was not all in vain, they get to update their map and plan for the complex. Chaos engineering anyone.

And a good thing is that there is no fee for setting the fire-alarm accidentally. Phew...

The aftermath 

My son, 11 years old, is very disappointed in me. He says "Dad, how could you not know? Even kids know about the fire alarms and to leave them alone." He spends the entire day in being very disappointed in me. But things are normal after a day. And I start joking with him afterwards by pretending to reach out to the box to get him mad.

My wife is only mildly angry with me. After the shock is over, and we are finally on our way to shopping for groceries, she tells me: "Why are you like this? And why am I not surprised you would do something this goofy?"

When I told the story to my PhD students, Ailidani and Aleksey, they are amused. But again they are not very surprised. Somehow this is something they expect their advisor would do. Set off the fire alarm, while checking it.

But for my defense, this box is like a mousetrap for the ADD-me. It is not at all obvious to me that the arm is the box cover. When I see a box, my instinct is to open it to see what is inside.

What kind of affordance is this? It is definitely not obvious that this is an arm.

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