Planning for the Fire

There’s something wrong with the fire detection system in my apartment building.

In the five months since I moved to Memphis, we’ve had probably twenty false-alarms, the siren in the hallway just outside my flat blaring an enduring, ear-shattering sonic pulse each time.

After a week in which nearly every day was accompanied by such an alarm, I reached a point where I considered just ignoring it; covering my ears and doing my best to carry on. Each time, though, I thought about how much it would suck if this time it was real. How stupid I would feel in my final moments if I’d had the chance to escape, but didn’t. Because it was inconvenient.

And so I came to meet some of my neighbors, by sight and through commiseration, if not by name. We met while helping each other carry crying toddlers and toddler-accessories down the skinny stairwells. We stood together in the parking lot, our heads tilted upward, eyes checking windows, each of us looking for evidence indicating that this time the fire might be real.

I think most people would opt for over-sensitive smoke detectors over no smoke-detectors at all. After the initial frantic moments of properly clothing myself, grabbing the essentials, locking up my apartment, and fast-walking down nine flights of stairs, I would remind myself of that. If there’s ever a fire, I’m good. I know I’ll hear the alarm, and I’ll sure as hell know what to do. I know exactly much time it’ll take me to get downstairs and out the front lobby doors. I feel pretty well trained at this point.

There’s a mental exercise many of us have conducted with varying levels of seriousness that centers around rushing out the door in the event of a fire.

What would you take with you?

Or asked another way: what’s your most important possession?

What’s so vital that you would risk the spare moments, and the extra, perhaps cumbersome weight, to save it from the flames?

This question hasn’t be terribly relevant to me for a very long time. Since 2009, everything I’ve owned has fit in a laptop bag and a carry-on bag.

All my stuff has always been close at hand, and I could pack it back up in less than a minute.

Here in Memphis, though, I own more than that. I have some equipment I’ve purchased for cooking and music-making. I have a rocking chair and bed and a desk. I don’t own much compared to most people—those who have seen my home have commented that it looks very “clean” and “neat”—but it’s far more than I can grab on my way out the door.

The frequent fire alarms presented an excuse to assess and to prepare within the scope of my current, furniture-owning reality.

A “go bag” is a bag that you keep packed with the essentials so that you can walk out the door at a moment’s notice.

My go bag has a change of clothes, some toiletries, some charging cables, and a few documents, like my passport and vaccine information.

I discovered, though, much to my chagrin, that my go bag was stored in an inopportune place far from the front door. I didn’t even bother to grab it after hearing those first few fire alarms, which kind of negated the point of having one.

I decided to rearrange things so that not only would my go bag be closer at hand, between me and my exit, but so I’d require only a few seconds to slip my laptop into it before running out the door.

As part of this rearrangement I bought about $20 worth of cables and adapters that I was using for important things elsewhere around my apartment, so that if worse came to worse and the whole place burned down, I would still be able to do all my work—which I love—from wherever I ended up.

I wasn’t just protecting my somewhat-expensive and difficult to replace things: I was protecting my ability to keep living and doing the things I love. As long as I had that bag, I might lose my space, but I wouldn’t lose the more vital infrastructure that allowed me to be at home wherever I landed.

What’s important to each of us will differ based on our needs and priorities, of course. And it’s never pleasant to consider dangerous scenarios that would, at best, result in our losing almost everything we own, not to mention a place we’ve come to think of as home.

But it’s worth suffering through that thought process and considering what those initial moments might look like. Not just in a theoretical, “What would I take with me?” sense, but in a very practical, “What will not be easily or cheaply replaced, and what can I both grab and carry out the door without spending more than a fraction of a minute to do so?” way.

For me, a few small purchases and a slight rearrangement has lended immense peace of mind.

It’s also served as a reminder of what’s vital and what’s not, in a larger sense.

It’s possible to have things that are valuable, that you enjoying owning because of what they add to your life, but to not become dependent on those things. To not allow them to take up psychological space in your life and muddle your priorities when the clock is ticking.

It was helpful reminding myself that my lovely rocking chair—my favorite piece of furniture—could go up in flames and I would still be okay.

Recognizing that my real priorities are the tools which allow me to do the things I love has allowed me to feel more at home in my space, with my stuff. I’m not dependent on these things to live and be happy, which makes them easier to enjoy for what they are and for as long as I have them.