Saturday, August 29, 2009


#241, Memphis

In the window of an old Memphis building, cracked and peeling, stands a faded diamond. Back before the Department of Homeland Insecurity began branding entire swathes of the country with a nonsensical coding system -- I can't fly out of LaGuardia without being reminded by a booming PA that "the current threat advisory level is ORANGE" -- people actually took time to come up with criteria for how to intelligently communicate threats to our health, safety, and stuff. There has never been any published criteria for the government's so-called advisory system, just someone sitting in an office saying, "Hmm... feeling a bit yellow today. Let's bring it down a notch from high to elevated." Not to mention the MTA. After years of contemplating the back of my Metro Card, I've never understood what exactly they mean when they say "If you see something, say something." On the New York City subway? Are you kidding me? I see something all the time. That kid doing break dancing in the aisle during rush hour poses a bigger health hazard to me than that nicely wrapped parcel, done up with twine, sitting on the seat underneath some old dear's legs.

This is why I like firefighters. Yes, I'm the daughter of one, so if I haven't been over to your house, I'll be making sure you don't leave that burning candle unattended and that you replace the batteries in your smoke detector every April, but beyond that, I also know that these trained men and women know a lot more about fighting fire than the government knows about fighting terror.

Case in point: this 241 looks like just a cool number in a window. But for those in the know, it's the NFPA 704, or fire diamond. The three numbers represented here stand for health, flammability, and chemical reactivity. That white space is left open here, but in other cases, there are symbols for special hazards that would go there. Like a giant Pericolo skull, maybe, telling you to keep out, or a picture of Elton John to warn you to cover your ears. That sort of thing.

This 2 tells me that "Intense or continued but not chronic exposure could cause temporary incapacitation or possible residual injury." The 4, fairly dire, means what's inside is gonna vaporize or burn readily, and the 1 indicates that the chemicals inside are "normally stable, but can become unstable at elevated temperatures and pressures." Flash point temperatures are included in the code criteria, too. I like the National Fire Protection Agency. Maybe Homeland Insecurity can take some tips on how to utilize standards of logic, legibility, and procedure in their Advisory System. Oh wait, that might interfere with the fear-mongering. Silly me.

On a more sobering note, the fire diamond reminds me of the Search & Rescue diamonds spray-painted onto the homes in New Orleans post-Katrina. These markings, standardized and used all throughout the relief effort, indicate, in the various quadrants, the date of search, the name of the search team, if any hazardous conditions exist, and, in the bottom quadrant, the number of dead bodies found inside. This "x", which could be found on virtually all buildings in the months following the disaster -- many of which still remain -- have become known grimly to some as Katrina tattoos. The great blog Life Without Buildings has an image of one homeowner who had a Katrina tattoo converted into a permanent work of art, and also a post with an extensive collection of links about redevelopment in New Orleans.

Also, because I don't want to give the beautiful town of Memphis short shrift, I'm linking to my previous post about the most charming dive bar in the world and, yes, soul burgers. If you missed it the first time, check it out. If you didn't, go back for seconds. Mmm.


Jackie said...

This was absolutely fascinating! I had no idea about that symbol. Does indeed seem to make more sense than the office worker who hasn't had his coffee yet determining the advisory level of the country and then logging into facebook to update his status message 'bout it.

Thanks for posting this.

Therese Cox said...

Ha! Imagine getting a friend request from the Department of Homeland Security.

Julie said...

Yep, fascinating post.

I though you simply couldn't decide between vertical and horizontal.