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UP, DOWN, RESET or The Morning My Heart Stopped

7:30am on Thursday morning I walk into the theater.

I’m still half in a stupor, because I do not deal well with getting up much before 9am.  I’m the first one in, so after dropping my purse and grabbing my wrench, I start opening up the stage.  Unlocking doors, turning on lights; it’s the same thing I do every morning.  The last thing I do is raise the fire wall.

Before I go on, let’s talk about the fire wall for a moment, so y’all know what the hell I’m talking about, because this is important.  Picture a traditional theater.  At the front of the stage is usually a main curtain, a big, grand, velvet curtain that’s usually red, right?  We have one of those, too.  But in front of our main curtain is the fire wall.  It goes up and down like a main curtain, but instead of a velvet curtain it’s a 14,000lb wall that runs on a motor and is connected to our fire alarm.  It’s primary function, were there to (god forbid) be a fire on stage, is to come down and seal off the stage from the audience, keeping the fire isolated and preventing it from spreading into the audience.  However, because we can control it independently of the fire alarm, we also use it as a security measure, to keep unwanted persons (ie, homeless people) off the stage.  Got all that?

Okay, so back to 7:30am on Thursday morning.

I’m over at the control panel for the fire wall stage right, eyes glazed over, one hand desperately clutching my coffee and the other with a finger on the UP button for the fire wall.  Just like I do every mornings.  And like every mornings, I missed the mark that tells me where to stop the wall, and I raised it a little too high.  I pushed the DOWN button once to bump it back in.

And that’s when all hell broke loose.

The moment I pushed that DOWN button the alarms exploded.  And when I say “alarms”, I don’t mean an annoying repetitive beep or a high pitched bell.  No, I mean an air-raid siren, and one of the horns is right above my head.  Strobe lights are flashing blindingly.  This alarm is meant to clear a 1,000 seat theater, and it’s terrifying.  The assault on the senses, especially if you are tired and not expecting it, sends you into immediate shock, followed by panic.  There was no single coherent thought that smashed into my head, but a continuous and careening mental loop of “LOUDNOISELOUDNOISELOUDNOISE!” and “WHAT’S HAPPENING?!” and “WHAT DID YOU DO?!” and “HOLY FUCK I AM IN SO MUCH TROUBLE!” and “MAKEITSTOPMAKEITSTOPMAKEITSTOP!”  It was absolutely terrifying, especially considering I’d never heard it before, I wasn’t expecting it, and worst of all, I didn’t know what it meant or how to make it stop.

And so I ran.  I ran out of the theater and into my office backstage.  I started calling people, first the buildings manager/stage manager for the day, then Kyle at home.  He was working another event in a different city, one that didn’t start until much later, and he was still in bed, asleep.  Imagine his terror when woken up by a phone call that in the background he could hear a noise that usually means that 14,000lb fire wall is about ready to come crashing down because something’s on fire.

Thankfully, he was able to tell me to push the RESET button to turn the alarm off, and the buildings manager appeared not long after to call the appropriate people to have the problem fixed.  The police dispatch was called to let them know that there was no fire, just an alarm malfunction, and we were able to get started on the day’s event.  But it was a shitty-ass way to start the day.  It put our schedule half an hour behind, and all of us in bad moods.  We were short-handed to begin with, so we were in the weeds all day.  It was definitely a day that I was almost desperate to be over with.

But it finally came to an end.  We cleaned up, we swept, and we started closing up the theater.  Locking doors, shutting off lights; same thing as always.  I went stage right to bring the fire wall down.  I pushed the DOWN button.

All hell broke loose.

The alarms once again exploded and my heart and brain once again jolted to a stop.  We’d thought the problem had been fixed, so I was no more expecting it the second time than the first.  Every muscle in my body contracted at once, and I was thrown back as if I’d been shocked.  For a full 15 seconds I just stood there in panic, with the same mental loop crashing around in my skull.  15 seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but when every one of those seconds is filled with terrifying over-stimulation, it’s forever.  Finally, from somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that same RESET button Kyle had told me to push that morning, and there was silence on stage.

Another phone call to the buildings manager.  Now that we knew what the actual symptoms were (alarm goes off when you press the DOWN button) we could get it properly fixed.  But it was a long process.  Multiple calls to multiple companies as we figured out what part of the system wasn’t working.  Several more tests, each one stopping my heart as violently as the last.  At some point, the alarm started going off every time the RESET button was released, so one of the stagehands and I had to trade off standing with our thumb smashing the RESET button down.  A few slips meant a few more alarms.  The noise was actually starting to make me feel nauseous.  Oh, and while the electrical guys were opening the panel to try and deactivate the alarm, I accidentally grabbed the wrong part of the panel and took a nice jolt of juice to the arm.  Not exactly 120 volts, but enough to make me jump, accidentally releasing pressure on the RESET button and setting off the alarm again.

After several hours, the right people with the right tools came and were able to fix it.  Apparently a cable had gone slack.  I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but to be honest, I didn’t give a flying fuck as long as that fucking alarm didn’t go off again.  My boss called down from the grid, 50 feet above the stage where the problem apparently was, and asked me to try bringing the wall down.

I would be lying if I didn’t say my finger was shaking as I reached for the panel.  With everything in my body screaming not to, I pressed the DOWN button.

Nothing but the usual whir of the motor as the fire wall rumbled down.  Problem solved.  All was back as it should be.

And yet, I couldn’t shake the quickness of my heart and the tightness in my chest.  Even after testing it several times, taking the wall up and bringing it back down again, I hesitated to push either the UP or DOWN button and flinched at the initial noise of movement.  In a matter of a few hours, that alarm had conditioned an almost Pavlovian response in me that matched anxiety and fear with pushing those buttons.  My co-workers laughed at me as I quaked at pushing that DOWN button, but doing so brought on a rush of nausea that despite my bravado, was hard to conceal.

I went in to work again yesterday.  As usual, Kyle and I were the first ones in the theater, and after dropping our stuff and grabbing our tools, we started opening up the theater.  Unlocking doors, turning on lights; same thing as always.

I couldn’t bring myself to raise the fire wall.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Lauren June 26, 2011, 4:08 pm

    I worked at the Fox Theater in Detroit last summer as an electric. It was eye-opening to see what goes on backstage — like having a look at bees through a transparent hive. The sheer number of man hours that go into setting up a show and tearing it down again is incredible. Not to mention the stress… If a fire wall alarm disaster like that happened to me, I probably would have broke down and sobbed like a baby. It sounds like you faired better, save for some unwanted Pavlovian conditioning!

  • Karen June 26, 2011, 5:01 pm

    I think you handled yourself admirably!! with all the noise, flashing lights, and the “not knowing”, you did what you needed to do and did it well. Yes, you were scared!! Who wouldn’t be with all of those alarms going off. BUT you didn’t melt into the floor sobbing, you made the phone calls you needed to and got resolution to the problem.

    Proud of you!!!

    PS Those alarms are meant to produce tremendous fear, and hopefully, action. That’s why they are so LOUD!!!!!

  • Clark Douglas Burris July 26, 2011, 7:28 pm

    thank you for your blog… apparently the air-conditioning at Miami Beach Senior High School auditorium malfunctioned on one of those super hot summer days in Miami Beach Florida. Our zone mechanic said that the temperature in the auditorium was probably 165 degrees! Apparently, this caused the firewall to activate and descend. I do not believe the alarm went off but that least I know now that there is a button to put it back up. I am sure that there is something else we should know. If so, give me a holler… thanks again everybody.

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