Fire continues to flicker as a theme here at the mighty Chinese news compound where I labor. In June (see: Working Class Hero, 6/22) I recounted my "heroism" in dousing a motorcycle battery electrical fire with only three cans of 3.6% Yanjing beer and more recently we had another hot incident involving a first floor apartment occupied by a New Zealand intern who was at bar when a cell phone call alerted him to the fact that his first floor apartment was on fire.
Damage was confined to a lot of smoke damage after a plugged in, but empty, unused water cooler that had been in his living room since he arrived had zapped, undoubtedly due to substandard electrical wiring. The cooler and a back pack next to it melted down and many of his clothers were uncleanable after the fire department arrived, broke a window and sprayed the place down.
The group responsible for foreigners here, though, would have none of the "substandard wiring" explanations and grilled him mightily about the cooler. It was unauthorized.
When had he bought it? Never bought one. It was here when he arrived. Was he sure he hadn't bought it? Yes. Trick question - how much did you pay for it? I DIDN'T BUY ONE. YOU DON'T PAY ME ENOUGH. Did he use it regularly? Never used it once. Why was it plugged in? It was like that when he arrived. Etc, etc.
Nonetheless, though he wasn't booted or punished, an awkwardly written email and paper copy along with photos of the smoke damaged apartment and warnings in Chinese were posted throughout the area warning that "due to extreme carelessness by a foreigner a fire becoming danger to life" and reminded us to unplug all our appliances before leaving the rooms.
More worrisome was the fact that another foreigner on the 9th floor had smelled smoke and begun running throughout the halls breaking all the fire alarms and looking for extinguishers. The alarms didn't work, nor did others he tried on lower floors before realizing the fire truck was arriving (alerted, we learned later by a security guard returning from a long noodle and tea break). And there are no smoke alarms in any of the apartments. An email to this effect was sent to our Foreign Affairs department which replied that the pyrowhining barbarian was simply wrong.
1. All alarms work.
2. Fire extinguishers are working and plentiful
3. A special unit of the Beijing Fire Department is on vigilant watch to deal specifically with fires at the aparmtment complex and will respond quickly in each and every incident.
4. A "fire safety" demonstration will be held at an uspecified time and place to further reassure us.
Not mentioned were the lack of smoke alarms in our rooms. That's harder to deal with because they can't pretend they work or exist so - obviously from their point of view - it's not an issue.
The whole thing was more or less forgotten until late last week when we were summoned to the front parking and entrance area for the demonstration. It was held entirely in Chinese, though rough translations were available for those who couldn't get the idea of the term "Chinese fire drill."
About 12 extinguishers were lined up beside seven men in blue jump suits and white hard hats. We listened for about 20 minutes of unintelligible safety yammer and watched in awe as the lecturer pointed at one junior fire safety cadet in safety goggles who ceremoniously removed a manhole cover with a crow bar, gingerly picked up an extinguisher, pointed it down into the manhole, slowly pulled the extinguisher pin, looked away and squeezed gently.
'Pfffft!' went the foam. A very short, soft burst and the extinguisher was whipped back and handed to another guy in goggles and a hard hat.
"Ahhhhh!" went the Chinese onlookers. "Giggle" went the foreigners. The process was repeated several times as a photographer documented it. Then a foreigner was selected. Me, in fact, perhaps due to my past rep as a fire extinguishing hero. Lacking three beers, however, I donned the glasses as instructed, pointed the extinguisher down pulled the lever hard, yelling "Yaaahhhh! Die fire" as the foam spewed like berserk cotton candy.
"AHHHHHHH!" went the Chinese. "Nice one, dude" said an American coworker. The extinguisher was taken from my grasp rather quickly and the lecture was over.
The lesson? "In case of fire, remove manhole cover..."