Fire safety experts have long queried why people don’t respond to siren-based alarms, with voice evacuation systems often mooted as being the better alternative when it comes to relaying information and prompting quicker reactions from affected individuals during an emergency. Steve Loughney examines this crucial issue in detail.
Fire alarms blare, warning lights strobe… yet there are no flames or smoke. This scenario has been noted numerous times and in multiple studies. Building occupants often ignore – or are otherwise slow to respond to – standard fire alarm sounders. There’s even a tendency for people to continue with their activities, oblivious to any potential danger.
Bystander apathy – a condition whereby people ignore an emergency when they believe someone else will take responsibility – is the social psychological phenomena that can affect the pre-movement phase of an escape, prolonging the time it takes before people react to an audible alarm.
There are multiple explanations as to why we have a natural tendency to dismiss alarms, but the fact remains that any delay could prove critical or, at worst, catastrophic. People respond to others around them. Indeed, a collective position often emerges during emergencies. If one individual makes a move, there’s a strong likelihood that others will follow (with the reverse also true).
Doubts about the validity of warning sirens might also stem from the lack of confidence many have in standard fire alarm systems. Nuisance alarms or false alarms have lulled us into a situation where blaring sounds or klaxons are often casually dismissed as non-emergencies or non-life threatening occurrences.
This lack of urgency was echoed in studies conducted by the International Rescue Committee when it found that less than 25% of occupants interpreted the sound of the fire alarm as a potential indication of a real emergency during mid-rise residential evacuation trials.
Modified smoke alarms
In a related study – published in the Pediatrics journal – that adds credence to this idea, it was found that modified smoke alarms (ie ones employing voice warnings) were more effective at waking up children than standard fire alarm sounders. It took two minutes for high-pitched smoke detectors to wake children up, but just two seconds with a motherly voice.
Across the test sample, researchers found that only half of the children woke up to blaring noises of a conventional smoke alarm. Nine-in-ten woke up to a voice. The improved reaction times were consistent and surprising with further tests planned on varying sound frequencies across a wider sample of people of different age groups.
Yes, the alarms were played when the children were in the deepest phase of their sleep, but the findings present a compelling case for voice or spoken alarm systems. Simple fire alarms don’t always encourage the appropriate reaction, whereas voice commands are more specific and relay accurate information about any impending danger.
If you could also transmit that message in multiple languages, to be understood by more, then further vital seconds could be saved.
Comprehensive systems for complex buildings
More comprehensive systems for detection, alarming, evacuation and danger management are required as buildings become increasingly more complex. Visual and acoustic alarming protects the hearing-impaired or those employees working in noisy environments. Different zones of a building may, in different scenarios, require separate instructions to ensure a safe exit.
When you’re protecting what matters, every element of protection matters. Voice-based alarm systems lead to less confusion and a faster and safer evacuation.
Professor John Drury, an expert on human behaviour in emergencies at the University of Sussex, has stated: “While there’s often a tendency to underestimate risk in potential emergencies, certain features of the alarm signal exacerbate this. Unfortunately, the judgement people make that a bell or siren is a test or a malfunction is often correct. These forms of alarm are simply unreliable as signals. The review evidence demonstrates that these kinds of signals are relatively ineffective at both getting people to recognise danger and then evacuate.”
Professor Drury continued: “A key problem with the bell or siren signal is that it’s information-poor. So, in a situation where people hear such a signal, they will understandably look at the responses of others around them, and particularly so where they trust the judgement of these others. For example, they believe others have better knowledge of the venue than themselves, but where the others involved are also underestimating risk and not understandably trusting the signal, this leads to serious delays in egress.”
Continuing this theme, Drury stated: “The serious issue here is that failing to respond quickly enough to danger, rather than responding too urgently, is the main cause of death in hazards such as fire outbreaks. The task for alarm system manufactures and safety officials is to increase the reliability and hence the trustworthiness of alarm signals.”
Self-organising safe behaviour
Anne Templeton, lecturer in social psychology at the University of Edinburgh, commented: “Previous research on crowd behaviour in emergencies suggests that physical crowds can quickly become psychologically unified and collectively self-organise safe behaviour, often acting as first responders in the absence of the Emergency Services. This has become apparent in numerous emergencies, such as the reactions of the survivors of the July 2005 London suicide bombings. Research conducted by Drury, Reicher and Cocking (2009) on survivors of the London bombings indicated that crowd members quickly established a shared group identity (ie the perception of others as group members) through the shared fate of the attack and established social norms of how to behave. This shared group identity also occurs in other types of emergencies, such as earthquakes (Drury, Brown, Gonzalez and Miranda, 2016) and flooding (Ntontis, Drury, Amlôt, Richard and Williams, 2018).”
Templeton went on to comment: “In these emergencies, crowd members came together in the immediate aftermath of the emergency to self-organise support for one another. Collective self-organisation can have significant positive consequences, such as crowd members providing First Aid and using social media to provide safe shelter and distribute food and resources. In other instances, it can lead crowd members to put themselves at significant risk in order to help fellow group members by delaying evacuation in order to remain with others and provide support.”
Templeton continued: “One reason that delays to evacuation may occur is that crowd members may not have the sufficient knowledge or skills needed to perform First Aid, which could cause hesitation or put others as risk. A recent example of this can be seen in Lord Kerlsake’s (2018) inquiry into the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena which found that members of the public attempted to help people who were injured, but lacked the requite skills to do so. This suggests that people in crowds will try to help one another in emergency situations, but may lack the relevant infrastructure and training.”
Another aspect that can hinder fast evacuation is the relationship between crowd members and the people giving them instructions. Recent social psychological research on mass emergency decontaminations, organised by Public Health England, has demonstrated that crowd members have greater trust in information provided by professional first responders and exhibit higher amenability to guidance when they perceive those giving the instructions as being legitimate.
“Moreover,” said Templeton, “a report for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction provided three recommendations for facilitating safe crowd behaviour in emergencies. First, to accommodate the public desire to provide help, which could build unity and trust. Second, provide the crowd members with information about how to act. Third, build trust by increasing the perceived legitimacy of the professional first responders to increase the chance of the public sharing social identity with them in order to internalise the guidance provided to them. Combined, these findings indicate that inter-group barriers between the crowd and safety professionals could be decreased by enhancing existing communication guidance to improve their perceived legitimacy, focusing on providing information to the crowd and working with it rather than against it.”
Steve Loughney is Head of BMS and Fire Product Sales at Siemens Building Technologies UK