I was sitting in the lounge area of Terminal 3 in Heathrow when the PA system came on.
“This is a security announcement. All passengers are reminded that baggage should-”
A sharp beeping interrupted the message. “A fire alarm has been activated in your area. Please go to the nearest emergency exit immediately. A fire alarm has been activated in your area. Please go to…”
People looked up quizzically; was this real? Most people decided not to take any chances and began to collect their bags and look around for the nearest green sign. This was hastened when shop staff started closing up. As I walked to the nearest exit to me (the one by Chez Gerard, heading into various gates) I noted with satisfaction that everyone was moving calmly but with seriousness; clearly the we’ve had bomb and terrorists drilled into our heads so much by popular culture that everyone knew what to do.
A stream of people were heading the same way as me. If you’ve been to Terminal 3, you’ll know that some of the walks to the far-off gates can take a while. 5 minutes for a fast walker, easily 10 minutes for a slow one. About halfway along, around when I was wondering why it was taking so long to get to an emergency exit that actually led outside the building, I spotted a green sign… that pointed back in the way I’d come. Brilliant.
Some people milled around it, paralysed by the competing signals, but most people just kept walking on. A little further on was another, more promising, green sign that hung above a double-set of fire doors. Some people were sitting around inside, looking bored, but the doors were locked. I shook my head.
When I’d come in to Heathrow earlier this morning, I was thinking about bombs. It was a nice day, and I wondered what would happen if someone set off a bomb in the airport. How long would it take to get back to normal? Would they still run some flights? I suppose I had this on my mind after watching a bunch of action movie trailers last night, most of which had some combination of huge explosions and nuclear bombs.
I knew that this fire alert probably wasn’t serious, but it all seemed very odd. Along with most other people, I kept on going until I almost reached the end gates. There, a small group had collared someone wearing a uniform – he wasn’t security or anything like that, he looked like a construction worker.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“There was a fire alarm back in the shops area. It told us to go to the nearest emergency exit, so here we are,” someone replied.
“Huh, I didn’t hear anything. All the tannoy systems are linked up together, so if there was a fire alarm back there, we should’ve heard it here.” All the same, he got on his phone to his supervisor, who evidently didn’t know any more.
“So what should we do?” we asked him.
“I don’t know. Like I said, if there was a real fire, we should be hearing it here.” He just seemed a bit bemused by the entire situation.
“Yes,” replied a woman, “but there was a fire alarm, and you said you didn’t hear it down here. So maybe it’s still going on. And there are some people going in the opposite direction now, back to the shops.”
He nodded. “That’s true. Well, all I can say is that you could just wait here, or you could go back and find out more.”
We all shook our heads, and headed back to the shops. No-one seemed particularly bothered, although I did hear someone say, “What if someone had fallen and hurt their knee?” What indeed.
After another five minute walk, I got back to the shops area. There was a small crowd hanging around, and a woman in uniform saying “You can go back now, it’s open!” So I went back, and on the way, saw some staff hanging around in Chez Gerard; they hadn’t even moved since the alarm.
I know that if there was a real fire, or a real bomb scare, everything would’ve moved a lot faster. But events like this just desensitive everyone. A fire alarm going off in a busy terminal is a big deal for the people in it, even if it isn’t for the staff. The fact that none of the staff know what’s going on, that the emergency exits signs point in the wrong direction, that it takes 5 minutes to get to the nearest exit – which is locked – is unbelievable.
They x-rayed my shoes when I came in. What’s the point? Security is only as strong as its weakest link.