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12 March 2016 | Paula Robinson

Imagine you are in a busy public building in central London. Now imagine that a loud intermittent alarm starts sounding over the public address system, with a repeated, automated, message between the alarm sounds telling you this is an emergency evacuation and you should leave the premises immediately, following the directions of staff.

You’d leave right? Of course! And you’d expect the building’s staff to respond, by actively and professionally shepherding people towards safety, and stopping new people from entering the building.

And later, when it hopefully all turns out to have been a false alarm, you’d expect to be told – by staff or via an announcement – that it was safe to go back inside. Right?

Well… now imagine that the building is Cannon Street mainline station. Run by Southeastern trains. And prepare to enter a parallel universe in which a full emergency evacuation alarm sounds, and NONE of the above things happen.

Wednesday, 2 March

After a regular work day, I went as usual to Cannon Street, to catch the 1848 train home to Bromley North via Grove Park. The platform wasn’t up on the board yet when I arrived, at just before 1830, but it’s always platform 1, so I went through the barrier and up the platform to stand in my usual spot, near the far end.

At just after 1835, the following sequence of events occurred.

First, a loud beep came over the announcement system – louder than the usual station staff ‘my colleagues and I are very sorry’ announcements – with an automated voice message between the beeps. This was an ‘Inspector Sands’ alert – it says something like ‘Could Inspector Sands please come to the Control Room’. (In case you do not know what an ‘Inspector Sands’ alert is, wikipedia describes this as ‘a code phrase used by public transport authorities in the United Kingdom, including Network Rail and London Underground, to alert staff and other agencies, such as the police, to an emergency or potential emergency such as a fire or bomb scare without alerting the public and creating panic.’)

I knew this, and realised there could potentially be a fire in the station, or a bomb alert. So I started to walk back up the platform towards the barriers, in case I needed to get out quickly. As I walked, I also sent out a quick tweet, knowing that many others on twitter would recognise the ‘Inspector Sands’ thing and could opt to stay away if they were at all worried.

Emergency evacuation announcement

After about 30-40 seconds of the repeating ‘Inspector Sands’ message, it segued into a proper alarm. This was a slightly longer beep, with another automated message, saying (as near as I can remember) - ‘This is an emergency evacuation. Please leave the building immediately, and follow the instructions of staff.’ This alarm continued to sound, I estimate, for about 90 seconds in all, possibly a bit longer.

I bet you’re thinking ‘so everybody evacuated then’.

That’s where you’re wrong. ONE person evacuated. Me.

I had to fight my way through the static crowds gazing up at the departure boards, and through an oncoming tide of people who were still entering the station, ignoring the alarm. It truly was parallel universe time – no-one else, staff included, did anything at all in response to this loud and unusual alarm. There were, as usual, a few people hanging around outside, but I’m pretty sure they were having a fag and were there already, waiting to go in. All right, I may just have not physically seen anyone else leave, and there is another large exit on the other side. So maybe a few people evacuated, like me. But it was really not very many compared to the hundreds who stayed put. A handful at most. I was baffled.

If you take nothing else from this article, please at least think about the above. Nearly all passengers stayed exactly where they were. Where they could have died, had there been a lunatic in a suicide vest, or similar.

I’m old enough to remember the IRA bombings. I was evacuated from cinemas and restaurants in the West End more than once while suspect packages or real devices were dealt with. I was working in Cavendish Square when the John Lewis bombs went off. The basement flat in Islington where I lived back then shook to the foundations and all the windows rattled as if there was an earthquake when the City bomb explosion went off in ‘93. London in 2016 is on high alert, and we all know that what happened in Paris could happen to us, any day.

But in the parallel universe of Wednesday 2 March, no-one else apparently knew all of these things, so they completely ignored the alarms and stayed put. Staff eyed each other, some laughing and shrugging as if they did not have a clue what was going on or what they should do. They stayed in place near the barriers. For all I know, they were told straight away that it was a false alarm, via their walkie talkies (Southeastern supposedly issues them with smartphones, but all you see is clipboards and walkies, so I dunno…). But the alarm continued to sound.

So there was I, stood outside. I went right out to the street, out from under that dirty great concrete overhang up above. I was thinking I should really move even further away, in case the windows all blew out if/when a bomb went off. I looked at the two entrances, and people were still streaming inside as the alarm continued. I still couldn’t really believe what I was seeing – it was as if I was the only one who could hear the alarm.

And at that moment, the alarm stopped sounding.

Alarm silenced…and…silence

So then what? Then nothing. Everything just carried on. There was no ‘all clear’ or ‘false alarm’ announcement. Nothing. Not One Word. Passengers arriving now would not even know there had ever been an alarm at all.

So was it safe to go back inside? Would you re-enter your workplace if there was a fire alarm evacuation and no-one had yet told you that all was well and you could go back in? I thought about this as I stood there, everyone streaming past me into the station. I thought in particular about all the people at the World Trade Centre on 9/11 who decided the emergency was now over, and went back up the stairs, never to be seen again. Cannon Street station hardly compares, but if you look up at it, it does look… heavy.

But it was nearly time for my train and I didn’t really want to be the one plonker standing outside for no reason at all while that train left, not least because a Southeastern train is a pretty rare thing these days, and you never quite know if there’s going to be another one along later or not. And I knew very well that Southeastern’s communications are rarely accurate or meaningful, so by that reasoning it was probably safe to assume that the alarm and the failed evacuation meant nothing.

So as to ensure that my last thought wasn’t ‘I really wish I’d stayed outside’, I did a quick check on twitter. I saw that @SE_Railway had responded to one person’s tweet saying it was a false alarm. Although replying to a single enquirer on twitter hardly counts as an adequate ‘all clear’ announcement, that was good enough for me to risk it, since it was an official source saying it. So I nipped inside, still not entirely comfortable, jumped straight onto my train just before it left, and got the hell out of there.

You’d think that would be it, and I’d just be happy to be alive. I know, I know. But I’m a trained fire marshal, and this really irked me. I had witnessed something bad and dangerous and worrying – not only shockingly poor procedures and an evident lack of staff training, but the blasé behaviour of the public.

I guess we are all too used to hearing people’s burglar alarms and car alarms getting tripped by cats and going off all Sunday afternoon. We think we are safe, and it couldn’t happen to us, that no-one could possibly be out to hurt us. We even think, when we are stood there at Cannon Street, that the worst problem facing us at that moment is Southeastern trains and their various inadequacies as a train operating company. So we just stand there like pillocks while an alarm instructs us to get out.

And since it did indeed turn out to be a false alarm, that behaviour will be reinforced, so that next time – when it might not be a false alarm – people will be even less likely to respond. That’s why all emergency evacuations should be completed, even if you know early on that it’s a false alarm. What happened at Cannon Street was dangerous.

How can incidents like this be formally reported?

I wasn’t sure who/what a member of the public should report this incident to. I knew that the Health and Safety Executive could receive reports on incidents and accidents to do with workplace safety, and Cannon Street is a workplace, so I started with them. Their site is rather officious and geared towards receiving reports from workplace health and safety ‘responsible officers’ and the like, and it was hard to find any route in for the general public, so I used their general enquiries email box first.

After a whole week, they got back to me (on 9 March) with the advice that this was not in their remit, but that I should contact the Office of Rail and Road, and possibly also the London Fire Brigade.

I went to the ORR’s website, and it’s just as officious and unhelpful to the public as the HSE’s one. Again, it is geared towards reporting by people in the industry with particular job titles. So, again, I used their general enquiries email to seek advice on how I should report a failed emergency evacuation at a major London rail station.

London Fire Brigade

The London Fire Brigade’s site is much better – less cluttered and less laden down with acronyms for industry insiders. I was able to find an email address there which looked a bit more promising than the HSE or ORR routes.

I received the following reply from a helpful Transport Fire Engineer/Team Leader at LFB the next day (out of a sense of general etiquette, I shall call him Dave, since I haven’t actually sought anyone’s permission to use their real name in this article).

Dear Ms Robinson,

Thank you for your email regarding the incident at Cannon Street London Underground station on 2 March. This has been forwarded to my team as we are the dedicated London Fire Brigade team responsible for fire safety at sub-surface railway stations and other transport premises.

London Fire Brigade’s attendance was not requested and therefore we were not previously aware of this event. We are now in the process of conducting an investigation and we will send you a further response once this has been completed.

Please contact me directly with any further correspondence regarding this incident.


Dave (LFB)

In response, I sent a quick reply, thanking Dave and pointing out that this was Cannon Street mainline rail station and not the underground station, and he acknowledged that and thanked me for clarifying, the next day (11 March). It’s obviously material to the investigation, since different bodies control the mainline and underground stations.

Office of Rail and Road

Also on 11 March, I received a response from the Office of Rail and Road. This turned into something of an interesting exchange (if you like this sort of thing!) about the ‘Inspector Sands’ phenomenon. My web enquiry form had been forwarded internally to a ‘Principal Inspector of Railways’, from the Transport for London team. As above, I haven’t consulted him about this article, so let’s call him George.

In short, George commented that in his experience the ‘Inspector Sands’ message was normally reserved to London Underground. So (without doubting my account), he was asking me to confirm that I had heard this in the mainline station at Cannon Street, and not the tube station. I confirmed it was indeed the train station, and pointed out that the message is used regularly at rail stations, and that there are various examples reported recently on twitter, including an incident at Euston in the last couple of weeks. George thanked me for that, and said that he personally deals with the Underground, and so he will pass my report to his colleague who deals with Cannon Street mainline station.

I also told George I was in correspondence with LFB (so that they could co-ordinate). He replied right away to reassure me that had already spoken to them.

What now?

I expect there will now be a lull while they investigate what happened, but I am content that the matter is being looked at properly by the right people, in the interests of all our safety. It really isn’t about ‘blaming’ Southeastern, much though I detest and decry their lamentable train service. It’s about a genuine public safety concern, and I hope that whatever comes of the investigation, there will be some learning at Cannon Street so as to improve our collective safety (including that of the staff who work there) in the event of a real emergency in the future. That’s all I want.

Regardless of officials investigating, I hope that you will think about what you personally will do if an emergency evacuation alarm goes off at your station. What will you do if no-one else around you moves to leave? Will you chance it, staying put?

If so, at least get your brave and devil-may-care self out of my way. However many false alarms I hear, and whatever anyone else chooses to do, I’ll still be leaving. Every time.

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