I’m a big promoter of critical thinking skills because it’ll save you much embarrassment and expense. “Skeptic” is not a four letter word and skepticism can be a very useful tool for determining the truth of a claim especially when said claims come from complete strangers who are presenting themselves as an authority figure. People like the prankster who phoned up the front desk clerk of a Holiday Inn Express in Arkansas claiming to be a representative Grennel Fire Sprinkler service. Hotel employee Christina Bergmann was working the front desk that morning and apparently didn’t bat an eye when the fake Grennel rep told her there was a problem with the hotel’s sprinkler system and that she needed to reset it by pulling the fire alarm:
“Bergmann proceeded to pull the fire alarm at this point, causing the audible alarm.” Bergmann, aided by a hotel guest, would subsequently follow a series of directions from the caller that would result in about $50,000 in damages to the hotel’s windows, carpets and electrical system. Hotel guests, who were evacuated during the incident, were allowed back into the Holiday Inn after police and fire officials determined that the caller was an imposter.
Now I can see how someone non-technical might be able to be convinced that pulling the fire alarm would reset the sprinkler system, but when you read the full police report at The Smoking Gun you have to wonder why the next instructions didn’t cause her to pause and ask what the hell was going on.
The caller then advised Bergmann to push the lever back up. When she was unable to do so, the caller told her that in order to keep the sprinklers from coming on and causing serious damage to the hotel, she had to break all the exterior windows.
I don’t care how non-technical you happen to be the above instruction should be a major red flag that the caller is not who he claims to be. Smashing the windows to keep the sprinklers from going off? How exactly is that supposed to work? Especially considering that the sprinklers themselves are usually activated by the heat of flames and not some sort of electronic switch. Even if you didn’t know that though you still have to wonder how broken windows would stop sprinklers from activating.
It’s at this point that our story takes an even more bizarre turn for the absurd. It seems Bergmann wasn’t the only person not thinking critically that day as about this time a customer by the name of Rusty Brown walked into the lobby and identified himself as an Incident Commander. That’s someone who’s been trained in how to coordinate an emergency response. The sort of person you’d hope would have a highly developed critical thinking skill and the knowledge of how to apply it in an emergency. Rusty Brown apparently did not have such a skill as he didn’t bat an eye when handed the phone by Bergmann and told by the phone rep that the exterior windows had to be broken to reset the alarms and keep the sprinklers from activating:
At this point Bergmann and Brown began breaking the lobby windows with a fire extinguisher. While Brown was breaking the lobby windows, the caller advised Bergmann that she must break a portion of one of the sprinkler heads to keep it from activating.
Again we come to a point where you’d think a red flag would pop up and start bashing Bergmann over the head. Activating the fire alarm didn’t work, breaking windows doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, so how would intentionally breaking the actual sprinkler head help in any way? Well, what could it hurt to try, right?
At this point Bergmann removed a portion of the sprinkler head, causing a large amount of water to flow through it. After breaking several windows and realizing the alarm was not deactivated, Rusty Brown got back on the lobby phone with the caller.
Surely Rusty Brown realizes at this point that they’ve been had and is going to curse out the caller in a lengthy and graphic way. Then again, maybe not:
The caller told Brown that he must reset the control panel for the system. Brown told the caller that the water from the sprinkler was keeping him from reaching the panel. The caller told Brown that he had to find the breaker box and shut down power to the hotel.
Again, this should be a red flag. Sprinkler systems generally don’t require power to function as they are activated by heat breaking a fluid filled chamber in the sprinkler head and the flow is driven by pure water pressure. If you want to shut them off you need to find the valve for that section of sprinkler heads, not a breaker box. You’d think that an Incident Commander would know this, but apparently that’s not the case:
At this point Brown gave the caller his cell phone number in order to stay in contact while mobile. The caller made contact with Brown by phone and continued to give him instructions. Brown found an employee and gained access to the main electrical room and shut down the main power.
And now we come to the big payoff:
Brown advised that at this point the unknown caller called his cell phone again and advised that he was connecting him to the hotel manager, whose number he had gotten from Christian Bergmann. At this point Brown was in contact with Candlewood manager Donna Caldwell who was unaware of the situation.
So there you are, a trained Incident Commander who’s supposed to be able to coordinate a response to an emergency situation, and you’ve just finished helping a clueless hotel clerk smash a bunch of windows, set off a sprinkler system, and shut down power to the hotel all to avoid something that wasn’t going to happen in the first place and you’ve got to explain all of that to the hotel manager. Sucks to be you.
All of that could have been avoided with just a little critical thinking and a question or two. Rusty Brown should have known at least a little about how fire suppression systems work, but even without that knowledge there were several points where a reasonable person should have questioned what they were being told to do.
Rusty Brown, the Holiday Inn guest who helped Bergmann follow the prankster’s instructions, told TSG he was “an innocent bystander and got involved in domestic terrorism.” Bown, 36, remarked that there was “absolute panic in that hotel,” adding that, “all I did was make it worse. I’m not proud of breaking windows. It is very disheartening.”
Domestic terrorism? I suppose that’s one way to look at it. Being played for a fool is yet another. I don’t know who determines who gets to be an Incident Commander, but if I were them I’d be seriously reconsidering if Rusty Brown is right for the position.