Today, the fire alarm went off in my residence hall.
Some background: I’m a student at New York University, living in a single-person studio overlooking Washington Square Park. So, as college housing goes, I got a pretty good deal. In fact, the deal is even better than it sounds, because my housing is free. Now, though my financial need is fairly significant, NYU is not known for being generous with financial aid, or offering housing for free, but this is a special case: I work for the university as an RA, or Resident Assistant, and NYU’s RAs get their housing and meal plans for free. It’s a pretty sweet deal, I’ll be honest, especially considering the rather exorbitant cost of living in Manhattan. However, it’s not a one-way street; there are significant duties that come with being an RA. We are responsible for the well-being of our residents and the wholesomeness of their community. In particular, we act as first responders when emergencies arise. Including unexpected fire alarms.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been in the building when the fire alarm went off. It was, however, the first time that it wasn’t a drill. During fire drills, the staff know about it ahead of time, RAs included, and have time to take positions beforehand. Some RAs help direct residents out of the building in the lobby, while others take master keys and check rooms to make sure that all the residents have in fact evacuated the building. Obviously, if folks are just ignoring the fire alarms, assuming that it’s a drill, and chilling in their rooms playing Halo, that’s kind of a problem. Especially when it’s not a drill, like today.
So when the fire alarm went off this afternoon, I ran down to the lobby to meet up with the other RAs. No one knew why the alarm was going off, though no one had seen a fire or smelled smoke. But as far as we knew, there was actually a fire in the building. Residents were straggling out of the stairwell, heading for the exit, but they all seemed to think it was a drill. I immediately headed for the spare keys, intending to go back up and do room checks, just as I would during a drill. If it’s important that residents take the alarm seriously and evacuate quickly when it’s just a drill, I figured, then it’s all the more so when there might be an actual fire. It’s not just important, I thought; it’s a matter of life and death. I felt the kind of fierce, cold clarity and purpose that only comes with this kind of urgency. I was shocked when my supervisor stopped me, saying that in the event of an actual fire, RAs do not perform room checks. Instead, we evacuate ourselves. After all, she said, no university could reasonably require its student staff to charge into a burning building for the residents still inside.
As we quickly found out, there was no fire after all. Engineers performing repairs on some of the building’s electrical systems had accidentally triggered the alarm system, setting off the earsplitting sirens that had driven RAs and residents alike down to the lobby and out into the muggy summer day outside. But in that moment, I was reminded of why I took the RA job in the first place. It was engraved upon my personality at a young age that the most sublime act is to set another before you. I never feel quite comfortable with myself unless I’m helping people. In the words of Jackie Robinson, “a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” I try to live my life as a practical embodiment of these things I have long since come to believe in theory. Screw free housing and meals; this is what being an RA is about, for me: the willingness to plunge headfirst into a problematic situation to help others. The desire to be the one who runs towards the things the crowds are running away from, to make sure everyone is safe and sound.
We all like to tell ourselves that we’re the kind of people who would go back into a burning building to make sure everyone got out safely. It’s comforting to think that about yourself. But really, you never know until you’ve been tested. This morning, if you had asked me whether I’m that kind of person, I would only have said that I hoped so, but when it came down to it, I didn’t know if I’d really have it in me. Of course, as it turned out, my building was never burning. But I thought it was, and it never once occurred to me not to go back for the people still in their rooms on the upper floors. That’s good to know. I’m not a perfect person by any means, but I’ll sleep easier tonight knowing that about myself.
We all like to tell ourselves that we’re selfless and noble at our core. It’s comforting, yes, but maybe that’s not why we believe it about ourselves. Maybe more of us are right than we think. Maybe we all really are those people, deep down somewhere inside. We should give ourselves more chances to find out. We might surprise ourselves. And each other.