British for "911"

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As I sit at home working, I smell something that smells kind of like candles burning. I look around my flat, but there seem to be no candles. Then I see smoke gushing past my window. I look outside, and it is clearly belching from a window of the building next door. The building is set back a bit, so I can't see exactly where it's coming from, but it seems to be a window in the third floor flat, which almost unquestionably must be on fire.

Should I go outside and check? No--if I delay, people could die. I call 999 (which is British for "911") and report what is happening.

Then it occurs to me that the fire could easily leap from that building to our own. I had better leave the premises.

But if my computer goes up in flames, everything I've written for the past 7 months goes with it. I set my computer backing up to my external hard drive while I find my shoes. Where are my keys? And maybe I should bring a book, in case I have a long wait outside. Also, I'll need my mobile phone. No, there's no time to take my phone. But what if I am trapped in the yard by burning timbers, and the fire department can't hear my screams over the roar of the flames? I had better bring the damn phone.

By now, my computer is finished backing up. I eject the external drive--after all, if I unplug it without properly dismounting it, I could damage it--and shut the computer down. Then I unplug the hard drive. But wait a minute--it was raining earlier. What if I bring the hard drive out in the rain and it gets soaked? But I've already wasted enough time; I could be burnt to a crisp in a moment. There's no time to put it in plastic.

I put it in a plastic bag anyway. Then I hurry out of the flat, because, really, there isn't a moment to lose.

Obviously, I don't want to take the lift (British for "elevator"), since the building could catch fire at any moment. So I hurry down the steps--but as I pass my neighbors' flats, I hear sound from within, and I have a crisis of conscience. Should I pound on their doors and yell "fire"? But the building isn't actually on fire yet, and what if it's a false alarm? There is already building skepticism among the British public over America's inability to find weapons of mass destruction in postwar Iraq. What if it turns out there is no fire, and my false alarm is the final nail in the coffin of Anglo-America unity? What if Saddam Hussein comes back, and the only Coalition that can stop him is shattered because I panicked at the sight of smoke?

On the other hand, clearly, there is enough danger that I'm fleeing my flat. Am I such a monster that I would value my own life above that of my neighbors, in the name of American national honor? Is this how I reward Britain's pro-American stance? But back on the first hand, some of my neighbors are elderly enough that rushing outside could cause them injury or, at least, discomfort, and what if I end up giving somebody a fatal case of pneumonia? So should I just knock on the doors of my youngest neighbors? That seems awfully discriminatory.

I decide that I'll run outside, and see how close the flames are to reaching our building. If there is any immediate danger, I will heroically rush back in and warn neighbors of all ages.

I run out the front entrance, duck around back, run to the rear garden, look up at the building next door--

--and from this angle, I can see that the smoke is coming from a barbecue grill, which somebody has set up on their balcony.

So now I have to call 999 again and tell them that it was a false alarm. But British emergency services, which displayed crisp efficiency when dealing with a potential fire, don't seem properly trained in taking calls from embarrassed Yankees who have panicked at the smell of barbecue.

"I'm at 75 Holland Park."

"What�s your address?"

"75 Holland Park."

"You're in Holland Park?"

"No! I mean, yes, I am in Holland Park, but Holland Park is my address, not the park. But the fire isn't at 75 Holland Park. I mean, there is no fire, but when I called to report a fire, it was next door to 75 Holland Park."

"So where's the fire?"

At that moment, I see the fire engine pulling up to the front, and mobile phone in hand, I cut around the building towards it. "I'm going to hang up now," I tell the 999 operator, and I hang up, and then say to the nearest fireman, "It's just a barbecue grill."

The fireman nods and calls to his colleagues, "It's a code 5," which is presumably British for "stupid American twonk."

I lead him around too the backyard just so I can show him that there was, indeed, smoke, and that I'm really not a Code 5 after all. Fortunately, the barbecue grill is still up on the balcony, and still giving off smoke. In fact, there is now a man leaning over the barbecue grill.

"You're all right, then?" the fireman calls up to him. "You're not on fire, are you?"

The barbecuing man is utterly baffled by the sudden appearance of a fireman below him. "I'm having a barbecue," he explains slowly, as if the fireman must be something of a twonk himself. I nod sympathetically, as if to say, "Gosh, these silly fireman! Always panicking at the first sight of smoke!"

Events described occurred in June 2003.



Jerome Neukirch said:

I went through a very similar experience recently, except that my fellow tennants were the least rational characters, in relative terms. I also got an amusing anectdote out of it:


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This page contains a single entry by Jacob published on January 15, 2004 1:21 PM.

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