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Only You Can Prevent Office Fires

Even in today’s hectic times, you should stop and smell the flowers occasionally. Or at least take a moment in your busy schedule to sniff the air for smoke. This lesson was driven home to me last Thursday, when I was slaving away diligently in my office cubicle, wrestling with page layout, and I became aware of an unpleasant burnt sort of smell.

Ignoring it didn’t work for me, as I seem to have a sensitive nose and the smell just lingered there, distracting me. So I checked my computer for excess heat (finding none) and sniffed around some more to try and locate the source of the offending smell. Eventually I asked the co-worker sharing this corner of the office with me (albeit hidden behind one of those cubicle desk walls, so we can’t see each other) whether he smelled anything strange or burning.

He too, thought he detected an odor of overheating plastic or burnt popcorn or something, but he was more willing to dismiss this and get back to his conference call than I was. Standing sort of centrally between all the desks in that end of the office, I pinpointed the smokiness as emanating from somewhere between my colleague’s desk and that of my team leader, who happened to be on vacation that week. Aha, I thought, it’s coming from the vent above. Prodding my co-worker to sniff once more, I got him to agree that the burnt aroma seemed strongest near the vent, strengthening his theory that this was somehow connected to food and the microwave down the hall.

Not satisfied with this, I checked other likely sources, finding none. And that’s when I took that decisive and courageous step: I spoke to the branch chief about the smell, fully aware that this could all turn out to be nothing at all and a huge waste of time for everyone (except that in that case there wouldn’t be this little story now, would there. Unless I enjoy writing pointless stories of my humiliation. So we don’t know, do we?).

The branch chief listened to my tale of a burnt smell, came to sniff for herself and (dramatic pause) agreed that there was something in the air. Hosanna, I’m not imagining it!

Anyway, the maintenance department was duly called because she assumed that the electricians downstairs, who were doing a lot of drilling because they were installing new – get this – fire alarms, might be responsible. Five minutes later, three burly firemen in complete fire gear were crowding  the area near my desk. The electricians, it seems, were on a break and so clearly not the reason for the smell. A smell that the firemen by the way claimed not to be smelling at all.

Well, no wonder, what with their heavy rubber coats, which gave off quite a string smell themselves. However, they dutifully looked for possible sources of a burning sort of smell, even if they couldn’t smell it, and I was about ready to crawl under my desk and hide for wasting all their time. There was some interrogation regarding the office printer and whether it might be jammed, causing the smell, but we denied this.

Waving about their very nifty infrared temperature gauge, which showed no heat sources, the firemen then declared that it must be the radiators, most likely recently switched on for the fall season and thus giving off a musty smell after long disuse.  And so, the firemen turned to go, ready to abandon us to our fantasies of smoky odors.

But then! In turning to leave, the head fireman swung the temperature gauge over my absent team leader’s desk, and let out a startled yelp of sorts. Well, a manly, fireman-like yelp. The temperature of a pile of papers showed as 420 F! Upon closer inspection, it was revealed that the pile of papers was positioned atop a 20-year old hot plate that was turned on full heat. A metal water kettle was sitting there too, empty of water and piping hot, with its bottom almost burnt through.

The firemen grew excited, demanding to know who’s desk this was and lecturing us all on the idiocy of having exposed heating elements laying around in an office overflowing with paper and very old, very flammable books. We managed to shield our team leader’s name from the fire marshall but all such forbidden items have since been removed form our offices of course.  The firemen are convinced that it was only a matter of time before the whole area would have burst into flame.

The branch chief later came by to thank me for not only sniffing out the whole burning metal thing but mostly for speaking up about it. Really of course I was only saving my own life, because, looking at the layout, I would have been trapped behind the fire with no good exit. In any case, I think I no longer need to worry whether they will pick up the option on my contract next month. Just think of the money in fines alone that I saved them.

Of course, my team leader was not amused to find upon his return that he would have to give up his old hot plate and forgo his morning tea. He refuses to believe that there ever was danger of a fire and he hasn’t forgiven me yet. Oh well.


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