At the gym which I still miraculously patronise three times a week, they often do their fire alarm test while I'm there. I don't think they necessarily do it deliberately because I'm there, but given that it always scares the crap out of me when it sounds, which must look amusing to others, maybe they've taken it on as some kind of mediocre sport.
The sound is very high-pitched, very loud and extremely brief. The problem is that they do it probably six times, with roughly a minute's gap in between, so you're never not made to jump each time it happens. The chap who is already holding up a weight that is turning his right bicep into water can't be aided by the fright of that alarm. One false move and the weight has snapped a couple of toes and the local authority gets a writ.
They never warn us it's happening either. In a responsible world, a great big notice goes on a wall, or the receptionist informs every customer as they swipe their membership card. But not at my gym. In order to gain some pleasure from what is otherwise a mundane duty required by law, they decide to petrify the customers.
I've never, to my great good luck, been present when a fire alarm has been activated due to an actual fire. Problem is, nowadays the requirement to practise properly and evacuate a building for a few minutes seems to have gone. The last time I can remember doing it was in Stockport when I was on the Imagine FM breakfast show, and that would have been more than seven years ago. Essentially three links and songs worth of stuff was pre-recorded into the computer so the radio station stayed happily on air while its entire staff - plus those in other offices within the block - were bundled across Heaton Lane to stand on a small patch of wasteland next to a municipal car park, whose users were looking at us if we were mad.
I wonder how they do fire drills at school now? I remember at primary school we got a mixture of publicised drills and surprise ones, with the latter always being quite soon after the former. The alarm - a one note drone that carried on ringing in your ears for hours after it had actually been switched off - would sound and everyone would do that disciplined thing of standing up, putting on coats and filing in an orderly manner out of the fire exit at the side of the classroom (all our classrooms had them). Then we'd gather on the playground, the register would be taken, some wag would momentarily pause before saying "Yes Miss!" to make the teacher panic (even though there wasn't an actual fire) and then we'd all go back in again. Presumably, the head teacher would then file a 40-page report to the education authority and fire service saying it was done.
The problem for me on one occasion was when the surprise drill came along, I happened to be standing near the normal classroom exit for the corridor. The alarm sounded and, well, I was rivalling Allan Wells for the speed I used to vacate the building. I just hurtled down the corridor and out of the front door. A couple of other kids - we were probably nine, I think, remembering the classroom in question - followed me at similarly high speed and so we essentially cocked up this teacher's drill completely. Everyone else did the right thing through the correct exit and we were waiting, alone and sheepish, on the playground for the bollocking that we knew was coming. We were told afterwards, curtly, that just buggering off like that could result in running "straight into the flames", which even then I thought was slightly over the top.
By contrast, even though I was there longer and was obviously older, the only thing I can remember about any fire drill at my secondary school was starting an impromptu domino rally among my classmates as the teacher tried to take the alfresco register. Boys will be boys. Given that the gym I use is in the same building as that school, I suppose the current system of frightening the shit out of me each time it rings its wretched three-tone alarm is fate's way of getting its revenge on me.