In America, safety always comes first

Six years ago my son, who had just come from Russia and knew only a dozen English words, started elementary school. "Dad, do you know the main principle of my school?" he asked. "No, I don't," I said, a little surprised. "Why, it's Safety First!" he explained, with words he had learned since the morning. He was disappointed with my lack of awareness. "And what does it mean?" I asked him. He pondered for a minute and replied confidently: "It means that if we are safe, we don't have to learn."
On the way to her kindergarten, my daughter asked: "Dad, can you ask if I can sleep in pajamas and not my clothes? It's uncomfortable to sleep in my clothes." I was shocked by my conversation with the director. It turned out that the Safety First principle ruled there, too: Children were supposed to sleep dressed, even with shoes, so that they could evacuate easily in case of fire. I looked up the date of the last fire in our county, which happened in 1987, with no casualties among children.

For eight years I worked in a building with the embassy of some tiny nation on the ground floor and think tanks on the other six floors. About once a month an alarm would resound through the building, with a monotone voice exhorting everyone to leave the building immediately and remain outside until the danger passed. Several dozen people, among them diplomats and renowned researchers, were forced to climb down narrow fire escape stairs and wait obediently. Finally, a fire engine would arrive and a brave looking firefighter would emerge and enter the empty building, only to return five minutes later with a triumphant air, declaring a false alarm. Again false! But the Safety First rule was strictly observed.

A friend of mine works for the Washington Metro, which is slightly less inspired than the Moscow and St. Petersburg metros. A commission was called to investigate when a line was out of service. It seems an automatic control center malfunctioned.

Why? It was flooded by water from automatic fire sprinklers: An electrician on duty in a neighboring room put his sandwich in a microwave oven, then completely forgot about his lunch. The commission drew the right conclusion: Safety First! Metro employees were banned from using microwave ovens.

To the outsider, it appears that Americans can get overzealous with the Safety First principle, resulting in some remarkably senseless situations.

Alexander Grigoriev is editor-in-chief of Washington Profile. He lives in Maryland.

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