Spotting Clowns

Written on 11/15/2008
Mark Allardyce

For a while I worked at a University, in the Computer Laboratory. The Uni had a brilliant but totally accident-prone Safety Officer. 


I’ll call him Clouseau, because the famous French Inspector and he were one and the same. They looked the same, moved in the same awkward manner and unfortunately his outcomes were similar. 


I and a couple of colleagues from the Lab were sent on a one day course. We listened to all the drills and read all the notes. But then came the highlight of the day, the demonstrations of items such as fire blankets and fire extinguishers. 




Fire Blanket 

So, there we were, some twenty or so employees from various departments, sat in the first couple of rows of one of the lecture theatres. Clouseau was on stage. Fire blankets. 


He explains and shows us how people behave if they catch fire. Much waving of arms, great animation and high panic. He then demonstrates how to extract the blanket from the canister. He demonstrates how you hold the upper edges, held high in both hands. He explains and demonstrates how you would walk up behind the flaming person, and with your outstretched arms, wrap the blanket around them to smother the flames. He explains that the person would be traumatised and it is often best to take them to the floor to totally smother any flames. To do this he advises a slight knock to the back of the knees of the burning person, so they crumble and fall more easily. 


Not happy with his solo demonstration, he asks for a volunteer. No one moves a muscle. He selected someone. A big girl from the front row. She wobbles up the three steps onto the stage. He introduces her to the audience. He asks her to feign panic and pretend she’s aflame. She does this well. Running around the stage waving her arms in the air. 


Clouseau has the blanket held aloft in his outstretched arms. He walks towards the rear of the girl and steps onto the bottom of the blanket. He trips into her with a bump and instinctively wraps his arms around her. Now she's really into her part and panics with great enthusiasm. He struggles to cleanly knock the back of her knee due to the tightly stretched blanket (a) he’s still stood on it and (b) she’s a whopper. 

Eventually, after a couple of attempts, over she starts to go. Unfortunately, with all her acting, she’s gotten very close to the edge of the stage. Much to his credit Clouseau has noticed. He holds on tight. Unfortunately, her momentum, coupled with his added weight send her crashing to the floor, and Clauseau, still holding on tight, being judo thrown through the air and straight off the stage.


Fire Extinguishers 

By now, Clauseau has recovered his composure and he takes us outside onto a grassy clearing to demonstrate the various fire extinguishers we might find around the campus. 


On the grass behind him are a number of extinguishers and what looks like a super sized baking tray. It was probably six foot long and five foot wide, made of metal, with a two inch lip all around the edge. 

He arranges us all to stand in an arc facing him. He explains the different types of extinguisher, some are for liquids and gases we might find in certain labs, others are for electrical fires and so on. As he is explaining things, he pours a flamable liquid into the big baking tray. He turns to face us, holding aloft a particular extinguisher. He explains that the contents come out under such pressure that the trigger elements can become iced up. Be careful with your fingers. 


This whole scene has disaster written all over it. His assistant lights the fire and Clauseau does spectacularly well, and puts it out. Next it’s our turn. Everything goes well and we now have several extinguishers on the grass with a proper frost build up around the trigger area. 


Clauseau refills the big baking tray with fuel. 


The grand finale. He faces us as we watch standing in our arc. He wants to demonstrate the fire blanket technique. He paces eagerly back and forth with the blanket held aloft in front of his face, but as he paces back his heel catches the lip of the big baking tray causing a wave of fuel to be sent towards the back of the tray. We can all see what he cannot. The wave is on its return journey towards the front of the tray and him. It’s transformed itself into a mini tsunami. It overflows the tray all over the back of his trousers and shoes. 


His assistant, who is at the other end of the tray, has already lit the fuel before anyone could say anything. With a flaming blue gasp from the audience, up it goes, and so do his feet. 

He’s in full fire blanket demo mode and does not realise he is aflame. He manages to extinguish the tray with the blanket and proudly turns to face a horrified crowd, now all pointing at his burning legs. 


With a look of terror he grabs the first fire extinguisher to hand and freezes his fingers stuck on the already icy trigger. In a panicked dance, he jigs up and down, an extinguisher stuck to his flailing frozen hand and his pants ablaze. 

His assistant rushes to his rescue and covers everything from his waist to the end of his hot shoes in a thick, white foam… 


AND THE MORAL IS: When you cannot spot the nob in the room - it could be you.