Alarmed and dangerous

house on fire as fiddler plays outside

In case of fire, call this smooth operator, writes Allen Myers

It’s only happened to me once, but I think I can guarantee that it’s always unpleasant to wake up in the middle of the night and discover that your flat is on fire.

It must have been the noise that woke me. Over in the corner of the room, sparks were flying out of a power point with a popping sound and flames were flickering along the wall around it. Fortunately, they were still several metres away from the curtains.

“The fire extinguisher!” I thought immediately. Half way across the flat to fetch it, I remembered it was a soda-acid model, with big letters on the side: “Do not use on electrical fires”.

What then? Of course: ring the emergency number. After first mis-dialling the US number seen on a thousand TV programs, I connected. The person at the end of the line was very efficient, immediately asking my name and address, which I supplied.

“And what seems to be the problem?” he asked.

“My flat is on fire.”

“Are you sure? It has been warmer than usual for this time of year. Perhaps you’re just feeling the unusual external heat?”

“No,” I assured him. “I can see the flames. They’re inside my flat.”

“And you don’t normally have flames there? No fireplace, for example?”

“My flat has never burned before. The flames are getting uncomfortably close to the curtains, and I’m afraid the whole place will go up…”

“Now, now,” he reassured me. “There’s no point in getting excited. We have to deal with these situations calmly and rationally. Please tell me: do you have any indication of what might be causing these flames?”

“I think it’s an electrical fire. There are sparks and flames shooting out of the power point. There’s a circuit-breaker box out at the end of the hall–should I try to shut it down?”

“Don’t be too hasty,” he cautioned. “The circuit breakers must control electricity for other flats in your building, don’t they?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And are there fires in any of the other flats?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so…”

“Well, there, you see,” he responded cheerfully. “There’s no need to disrupt the other residents. Chances are your problem has nothing to do with the electrical system, but is just a normal cyclical variation.”

“But my flat has never been on fire before.”

“That’s my point exactly!” he said enthusiastically. “On a cyclical basis, you were well overdue. Just as well I didn’t let you turn off your neighbours’ electricity to no purpose!”

“Do you mean you’re just going to sit there and let me burn?” I asked, as plaintively as I could.

“Of course not!” he responded immediately. “We are dedicated to solving your problem, regardless of what its precise cause might be.”

“So you’ll send a fire truck immediately?”

“Immediately? That suggests an attitude of panic, of rushing around doing things without thinking about them.”

“What are you thinking about instead?” I ventured.

“Well, if we can persuade a solid majority of the people who matter that your flat really is on fire–there are always some people who are slow to catch up on things–why, then, we have an electrical fire extinguishment scheme that is almost ready to be launched. Isn’t that good luck for you?”

“I hope so. The flames are getting much closer to the curtains, and a little while ago a spark landed on the couch, which is smouldering. It’s getting quite smoky in here.”

“Don’t panic,” he laughed, “like it said on The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. We can enrol you–almost immediately–in our fire trading scheme.”

“How does that work?” I coughed.

“Well, what happens is that we give you a quota of fire-extinguishment rights.
Normally, there will be a charge, but since it’s a new scheme that we’re trying to popularise, you can have yours free… Did you hear that?”

“Oh, yes, I did. Thank you. That’s very generous. But can I exercise my fire-extinguishment rights immediately?”

“There you go with ‘immediately’ again,” he laughed. “But yes, you can. All you have to do is knock on the door of your nearest neighbour and offer to sell him or her the rights. When he or she sees the smoke, you should have no problem.”

“Will that stop my flat from burning?” I asked.

“We can’t guarantee you against acts of God. But the scheme is designed to ensure that you are compensated, assuming that normal market rules aren’t disrupted.”

“Uhh…is that it? Thank you, I guess.”

“Glad to have been of service. Have a nice day!”