The Danger Of False Alarms

Sensible health and safety policy isn’t always easy to do. Here is an instructive example:

  • Williams said he discovered that the physical alarm system had been disabled a full year before the disaster. When he asked why, he said he was told that the view from even the most senior Transocean official on the rig had been that “they did not want people woken up at three o’clock in the morning due to false alarms”.

Oddly enough, on this one thing at least, I do have some sympathy for the Deepwater Horizon people.

The naive approach to health and safety holds that there is no such thing as a false alarm, and that people should be willing to tolerate any degree of minor inconvenience for ‘safety’. Unfortunately, this is horrifically counter-productive in practise, and can in effect actually endanger life rather than protect it. Let me give an example…

At the university where I work, we have a fire alarm system. It operates on a ‘zone’ system – the building is divided into a number of zones. When a fire breaks out in one of them, an automated alarm will go off to evacuate that area. The zones next to it get ‘alerts’ – not actual alarms, but a blaring speaker in each room that announces in a deafening, stentorian voice that ‘THERE IS A FIRE ALERT IN A NEIGHBOURING ZONE – STAND BY FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS!’ It does that at something close to 90 dB, and can carry on doing this for up to half an hour. (The only people who can turn this off are Security, and that involves rousing them from their daily tea-break, which starts at about 9 AM and finishes some time around 5 PM.)

Problem is, fires aren’t the only thing that set it off. Hot weather sets it off. Heavy rain on the asphalt roofing can set it off. The frequent burning smell from Engineering can set it off. For all I know, the phases of the Moon might set it off too. And this is a big problem. It disrupts work. It annoys people. It shortens tempers. And also, very, very dangerously, it habituates people to the idea that when an alarm sounds, it’s false.

This is bad.

It means that, one day, the alarm will go off for real – and no-one will react. Everyone will assume that it’s just another stupid false alarm. And they’ll only realise it isn’t when the flames start licking at the office window.

Basically, something some health-and-safety types really need to realise is that conditioning people to assume that alarms are false is not clever.


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