Combustible Cambridge

04Nov06

On the morning before the Guy Fawkes’ Day fireworks, there’s something to be said about the fire safety that I’ve found in Cambridge (and generally across England). I have found ‘big brother’ and he is the fire marshall.

One thing that Americans will notice about modern English buildings, perhaps after the fused electrical outlets, is the abundance of signs on doors. This includes the copious “fire door keep shut” sign:

Does anyone else feel like they’re breaking the rules whenever they have to open the door to walk through? (Such a sign in the US would be accompanied by typically American ‘fine print,’ perhaps “… when not actively in use.“) I’ve also found that the many signs on doors has caused me to become a bit desensitized to more important signs, such as “Fire door, alarm will sound.” Luckily alarmed doors here aren’t directly connected to the fire department.

Compared to California–which is currently in the middle of it’s brush fire season–Cambridge is very conscious of its fire regulations. The source of these strict regulations are a bit of a mystery. Perhaps everything in Cambridge is really just that much more precious than in the fast-food/disposable-diaper/use-it-and-trash-it US of A. Or maybe the 1834 fire to Parliament continues to be painted, Turner-esque, on the British zeitgeist. Who knows?

What I do know is that I was recently asked by the head of housekeeping not to use my door stop (“door wedge”) as it is a fire hazard. I was very confused by this and thought this to be a reminder that one shouldn’t prop one’s door open when one is away lest a wayward fire find its way into one’s quarters. I didn’t understand the grim severity of the situation until the following morning when my bedders (cleaners) knocked on my door with very concerned looks to ask if I was angry with them… for why else would I so openly flout fire safety regulations?

It turns out that there will be a safety inspection in the coming weeks and things that are out of order look very poorly upon the housing staff. Out of a great appreciation for my bedders I’ve decided to “play by the rules” and hide my door stop when I’m not in the room. (Hey, I had to ask for this thing to be sent to me from California because no store in Cambridge would sell such a fire hazard.)

But I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about how odd I find this regulation. There was a movie about firefighters in the early 1990s called Backdraft. The title comes from an effect where an oxygen-deprived fire is given a new source of oxygen, i.e. by opening a door. So certainly, in this respect, there’s something to be said about having fire doors to contain fires. I don’t have a problem with this, but it seems to me that at the end of the day, my little door wedge is still a harmless object.

First of all,  I live in a single room with a single door. I keep the door propped open so that my neighbors feel welcome to drop by to say hello when I’m inside. At least in the US this is part of healthy social behavior. Conversely, when I’m not in, I do not prop my door because I’d rather not have my computer stolen. Thus my door is only propped when I’m in the immediate vicinity of my room, i.e. when I’m well aware of whether or not there’s a fire. On rare occasions I’ll fall asleep with my door propped open… in which case if there is a fire, it would be very good that other people would be able to notice me and wake me up.

Secondly, I contend that even if one were to disregard the obvious security concerns, a propped door would not be an additional safety hazard. (I suspect this is why are room doors do not have the ‘fire door keep shut’ stickers on them.) A window that is left a crack open for ventilation will automatically negate the ‘fire safety’ of keeping a door shut to oxygen-starve a fire. So by the same logic that door wedges are a fire hazard, shouldn’t students be forced to keep all windows shut at all times?

The only thing that prohibiting door wedges accomplishes along the lines of fire safety is that it encourages students to immolate in their own antisocial behavior behind closed doors.


Uh oh! Someone had a door wedge! (From the 2006 Cambridge Guy Fawkes Day celebration.)

One would wonder if Guy Fawkes would have been more successful if only he had a door wedge.



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