fighting fire alarms

24 Jul

I hate hearing fire alarms.

I don’t just mean I hate their penetrating insistance – of course I can’t stand that! No-one can. But there is something a little more sinister behind my reasoned dislike.

I can appreciate the point to their annoyance – they’re designed so we find it very hard to ignore them… potentially saving a life when absolute attention is required. That is all fine and well.

What bothers me is when I hear fire alarms that *don’t* actually save my life, usually as part of the testing process.

This may sound very impatient of me: why not put up with the sound occasionally, for the sake of increased safety?

Well, I’m beginning to believe that there is a certain frequency of testing that actually becomes *less* safe. The problem is not so much that I don’t “put up” with the racket; but instead I am being trained to ignore it.

Ok, this might be easier to argue with some “slippery slope” argument. For example, hearing an alarm every day, or every few hours… and maybe some of you would agree with me in theory. However, I think the reality is far scarier – it is possible to train yourself to ignore the sound on far less ‘exposure’ than that. Probably weekly, possibly fortnightly, exposure is sufficient…

This may sound ludicrous. I would think so myself. But what really gets to me is that I know what has happened in my own experience: I have slept through minutes of a fire alarm drill; I have worked through a whole fire alarm test without noticing it – until the announcement came over the tannoy that “the fire alarm test is now complete”.

Oh…. “please react to any further alarms”. Yep, thanks for that! I’ll try and remember to… if I’m not too busy working, or something!

At least I’m no longer living in halls….


Posted by on Tuesday, July 24, 2007 in philosophy


Tags: , ,

8 responses to “fighting fire alarms

  1. Grant

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Well, Iā€™m beginning to believe that there is a certain frequency of testing that actually becomes *less* safe.

    But remember – they’re not just testing you, they’re also testing the equipment. What is the MTBF for a siren? šŸ˜‰

  2. rach

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    It never even occurred to me that they were testing me at all…! Please say that’s not what it is about… ‘cos if so, they’ve singularly messed up on that one.

    Don’t know about the MTBF, but if it is *anywhere near* a week, I’d say its about time we invested in better sirens.

    We can never hope to eliminate all possible equipment failures, but I do agree that more frequent testing proportionally reduces the risk. (Tho’ I’m sure the law of diminishing returns also plays a part.)

    Too frequent testing is maybe excusable for paranoia reasons šŸ˜‰ but not if there is actually a risk associated with it… as I’m arguing. In that case, both sides need to be considered. What’s the point in fully functional equipment if we – the folks it is meant to save – are so zoned out to the stuff that we may not benefit from the crucial few minutes it may gain us?

    I suppose my real issue is that I believe the “innoculation effect” of hearing too many alarms is not taken into consideration when the schedules are drawn up. I understand it is a balancing act, but you don’t achieve balance by ignoring one side of the equation. The only reason (I’m guessing) that the alarms aren’t every day is to minimise annoyance. Once a week is unbelievably ridiculous if this issue *has* been considered.

    For example, a solution would be for equipment testing to occur when the majority of people are not in the office. And people-testing by a couple of drills a year. (Incidentally, this latter was the only part I ever considered to be people-testing.)

  3. Grant

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    Oops! Silly me – I was forgetting that the weekly test is the one us workers are supposed to ignore. I wonder if they test it during the working day to make sure conditions are “real” e.g. all mains circuits loaded – if tested in isolation the extra power for the fire alarm system might not trip a main fuse but maybe it could when all the PCs, etc. are on. Maybe there are also insurance, fire regs, HSE reasons for an insistence on weekly tests? IIRC home smoke alarms are also supposed to get a weekly test.

  4. cath

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    They are, yes. (Home smoke alarms i mean, weekly tests. We used to live in a flat that had such high ceilings that the landlord equipped us with bamboo poles with which to reach the buttons. The novelty wore off after about one week.)

    It’s bound to be Health & Safety. They’re tested weekly in my office too. You don’t have to do anything tho, that’s just understood.

    I don’t really think you’ll fry for lack of noticing the siren btw, surely at least one of your ubergenerous colleagues would drag you kicking and screaming from your monitor.

  5. Angela

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 8:43 am

    The alarms used to be tested out of office hours but that involved security having to walk round and check that they could be heard everywhere in the building. The test was moved to within office hours so that us workers could check that they could be heard everywhere. Methinks they haven’t considered the fact that we all become attuned to it and then don’t know if we’ve heard it or not!

  6. rach

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 11:51 am

    Ach, you’re all so rational about it! šŸ˜›

    There’s certainly many sides to the discussion… I never meant to deny that! I was only highlighting one factor that seemed forgotten, and why I didn’t like its being forgotten.

    Possibly if all the calculations/factors are fully taken into consideration, it might be a closer-run balancing act than I was realising… but I must admit I was too lazy to present a detailed set of equations/weightings/assumptions.

    Maybe I’ll just invest in earplugs…

  7. Grant

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    There’s nothing wrong with a bit of irrationality now & again šŸ™‚

    And yes, I’m sure one of us would pluck those earplugs from your ears and gather you up as we headed for assembly point “H” – we need the eggs, after all šŸ˜‰

  8. Grant

    Friday, August 3, 2007 at 7:17 pm

    Straight from the horse’s mouth (well, from the “Ask the Management” web page at work):

    Date: 18-Jun-07

    Why do we need a Fawlty Towers-type test of the fire alarm on the site every Monday morning? It always seems to work anyway, and the test often happens when we’re trying to talk to Field Engineers or end customers on the phone. Can’t it be done out-of-hours, preferably at the weekend?

    The testing of the fire alarm systems is a legal requirement and it is expected that all employees are made aware of the evacuation signal. Weekly testing within working hours is normal business practice and allows us to examine sounder zone coverage extensively. We will, however, examine and if possible streamline the current process to minimise any business impact.


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