15 June 2018

The Importance of Emergency Lighting is (really)

Imagine working in a very large office, with ceiling high partitions, no external windows, and no emergency lighting. Now imagine being in that office when the electricity goes out.

That's where I worked in the early 1980s; a very large office area, probably 100 x 150 feet, with no windows, two doors, and a rabbit warren of corridors and smaller office areas, all walled off by floor to (almost) ceiling partitions. This was 3A147 in the Pentagon. After 35 years I'm probably not releasing any state secrets to say that this was one of the homes of the AFDSC (Air Force Data Services Center), with other offices and a computer center scattered around the building.

One day the lights went out (again).

3A147 is located on the 3rd floor, A-ring, Corridor 1, Room 47. Looking at the Pentagon from the air, it is easy to understand how this numbering system works. There are five floors above ground, and five "rings" from A to D (although underground there is, under one of the parking lots, an E and F "ring"). Each "ring" represented one of the original five buildings, nested one within the other. Five sides, five floors, five rings. All very satanic really. Thank goodness they've added a mezzanine and basement(s) and extra rings.

From each corner of the innermost ring, there are two corridors that reach from the central A-ring to the outermost D-ring of the building. There are, logically, 10 of these. So using this system, anyone new to the building, or even longer term residents, can easily find their way to any particular office.

While the area was, officially, A-ring, the buildings had been joined together to create a single large internal space that spanned A-C rings.

Thankfully that day, when the lights went out, I was still a smoker. Yes, thankfully.

I reached into my uniform pocket and took out my lighter, made the flame as large as possible, and held it aloft before me, long before this became a 'thing' at concerts. But it worked. The other moths in the office were attracted to the flame, and we were able to negotiate our way out through the warren of partitions, to the main corridor and a view of natural light filtering in from the windows along the A-ring.

One further geographical note: 3A147 was one floor directly above the largest cafeteria in the Pentagon. I once heard that over 10,000 people were fed there each day. Apparently they cooked quite a few meals down there. I certainly know that I ate many of them. And apparently they cooked with gas.

But back to the story.

Finally all us moths reached the corridor, only to find the in-building security police putting up saw-horses and telling people to move away from the door and out to the A-ring. Imagine any group of elderly, overweight donut addicts in police uniforms, and your minds-eye is seeing those police.

Being curious, I approached one of them and asked what happened, why the sudden darkness. As God is my witness, his response was:

"Someone reported a gas leak and we didn't want any sparks to set it off."

Oh good. We've just been walking through there with a lighter and nice tall flame, ready to explode. And we weren't the only people who needed to do that. Matches and lighters were used by others who were much deeper into the maze.

So began a crusade (am I allowed to use that word) to have emergency lighting installed in 3A147. It took three years, and landed me on the AFDSC Enlisted Advisory Council and eventually represented the AFDSC on the Pentagon Enlisted Advisory Council, constantly advocating for something simple; emergency lighting. I won't recount exactly what was said to finally convince the "powers that be" to install the lighting, but there it was, installed three weeks before I separated from the service.