Recently I had an unusual (for me) conversation with a grocery store night manager about a safety concern I had. I think I was polite with my words and my tone of voice, at least up until the very end of the conversation, but I was uncomfortable afterward, wondering if I had been ridiculous or rude at the end.
I was on my way home from the city at about 9:30 P.M. recently. I stopped at a big grocery store maybe 30 miles from our house. That store has three front entrances, one each at the right, the middle, and the left of the front of the store. During the daytime all three entrances are open, but at night two of them are locked and display cases are slid across the entryways, blocking customers from using those two sets of doors.
That would be fine with me, after all, I can imagine it is intended to reduce thefts at night... except that these doors each have a sign on them that says in bold capital letters: "THESE DOORS ARE TO REMAIN UNLOCKED DURING BUSINESS HOURS".
I have reason to believe (see the PS below for my backstory) that the Fire Marshall requires that those signs be posted and that those doors are supposed to be available as fire exits when there are customers inside the store. I can see that it would be a real safety hazard in a huge store like that to have two of the three fire exits locked.
After I paid for my groceries I noticed a manager standing at the end of the next checkout lane. I walked over to him. I said excuse me and I introduced myself by name. He asked how he could help me. I said, "Well, I don't know how to say this politely, and I do want to be polite to you, but I have a safety concern about your store."
The manager walked with me a few steps away from that checkout lane then. (Perhaps to move away from where other customers could hear?) I explained to him that I was concerned about fire safety and pointed out the locked exit doors with the signs that said they were supposed to be unlocked.
The manager looked puzzled and asked me what signs I was talking about, so I walked him over to the door and pointed directly at the sign. He just looked at me without saying anything for a few seconds and then he said, "Well, I'll have to look into that."
I don't know, of course, but from his facial expression and his tone of voice i gathered that he truly couldn't understand what I was concerned about. So, I replied to him that I thought it was a fire safety concern and that I thought the Fire Marshall had ordered those signs be put on those doors to keep those doors unlocked as fire exits.
The manager replied (dismissively, I thought) "But we have plenty of exits."
(OK - here is where I am concerned that I may have stopped being as polite as I'd like to be and maybe started being ridiculous.)
So I asked the manager if he was convinced that it was safe for him to lock those exits, would it be OK if I called the Fire Marshall's office and asked for the Fire Marshall's opinion? He told me to go ahead and do that, and at that point I took my groceries and left the store.
1.) OK - here is my etiquette question - what would have been a more polite way for me to have approached the manager - especially when I was thinking that his "I'll look into it" was really a brushoff?
I don't expect to ever again have a conversation like that, but I am curious as to better ways I could have handled it.
2.) This part isn't really an etiquette question, but I am curious nonetheless: Does being concerned about fire exits being locked come across as a ridiculous concern?
When I came home and told my wife about the conversation, my wife seemed to think I was being ridiculous. She immediately told me that she was sure those doors were locked because that is probably a high crime area, and that I should have felt more empathy for the manager. When I asked two of my sons what they thought, one immediately dismissed my question with a "You're being obsessive, Dad." My other son started to agree with his brother, but then he added, "Of course, if I were inside that store when a fire broke out, and my exit door was locked, and I was starting to burn up, maybe I'd agree with you then, Dad."
- - - - - - end of regular post- - - - -
BACKSTORY - (I'm sorry, 'cause I realize this is already too long!) I never used to think about fire exits until I had children. Years ago, when our boys were little, we sent them to a preschool at the church we attended not far from our old neighborhood. I ended up being asked to be on the preschool's separate board of directors. One of our problems was an ongoing concern about a particular fire exit at the church. Burglars had broken in to the church through that fire door, so the church had installed a heavy, tightly fitting removable iron bar on the inside of the fire door to prevent the fire door from being opened. (As an adult, I had to wrestle with this bar to remove it. I believe a child could not have opened it himself.)
The next time the Fire Marshall inspected the church he found the iron bar and declared that it could only be used to lock that fire door when the building was unoccupied. He had the church post a "THIS DOOR TO REMAIN UNLOCKED WHEN THE BUILDING IS OCCUPIED" sign on the fire door. The custodian was told to remove the bar whenever he unlocked the building. The custodian did not remember.
The next time the Fire Marshall inspected the church he found that his previous order was being ignored. Our preschool director was one of the people accompanying the Fire Marshall that day, and she told the preschool board the fire Marshall got really angry and said that our children could die in a fire when a fire door is deliberately blocked like that. He said there would be no more warnings, that the next time he found the door blocked when the building was occupied he would revoke our occupancy certificate and close us down immediately. (I don't know if he could have closed down the church itself on Sundays, but he did have the power to keep the preschool from operating.)
I don't understand why, but the pastors and business manager of the church didn't take the Fire Marshall's threat seriously, and the custodian continued to forget to unlock the fire door each day. So that we could be sure we could keep operating, the preschool director would go remove the iron bar each school day. I would check on Sundays, too, on my way to Sunday School, and every Sunday I'd find that fire door locked. I would unlock it myself so the Sunday School kids would have a working fire exit. (Yes, I did try talking to the pastors and the business manager, but they didn't take me seriously, so I just gave up.)
Anyway, that's my backstory. I think being concerned about fire exits is a reasonable concern, but obviously it doesn't come across as reasonable to some others. I'll be curious to read what other people think.