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Process Fails: Fire Alarm Tests and the Companies That Cry Wolf

If you cry wolf all the time, you risk people not really listening when something serious does happen. This is why fire alarms can be a process fail, too.

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If you want people to pay attention and respond to genuine alerts of any sort, you should always make sure the noise doesn’t bury the message!

Recently, I shared an experience I had while waiting for a flight at Stockholm airport. There, the public announcements were so scarce (instead of constantly reminding us to report unattended luggage and such; something we barely register anymore) that everyone actually listened to them. This time, I’d like to share a similar experience I had while checking into a hotel room, so we can see whether we’re dealing with another case of process fail.

The Issue with Fire Alarm Tests

So, we were recently staying in a nice hotel in Franschhoek South Africa, (I thoroughly recommend this hidden gem of a place to visit). We had just sat down in the room when the fire alarm went off. We look around the place and see there’s definitely no smoke and no signs of fire. Yet, the alarm keeps going and going. I poke my head out the door and check the corridor (where the alarm is even louder), but I see nothing. I assume it’s either a test or a mistake, so I promptly go back and sit down again.

To be completely honest, I’m not sure if this was the right way to go about it. Let’s break down this scenario a little more. The alarm is trying to get our attention, but we know it’s unlikely there’s actually a fire, and it's not a scheduled test; otherwise, we would have been notified. There are also no employees gathering people and getting them out of the building, so it all points toward some kind of system error. This happens all the time; alarms are flimsy things. We’ve just travelled a long way to get here, and we’re really tired. So, the decision to just wait for someone to come and turn it off seems logical. If facing the same situation again, I would stay in the room a second time.

When we were talking about those annoying airport announcements, I mentioned that when you tell people something they already know, and you do it over and over, they just become numb to the message and ignore it. It’s a very similar thing with alarms. Some of these tests are designed to see whether the system is working (for instance, the speakers). Others help employees get ready for these situations by making sure the entire process is correct (for example, emergency doors, meeting points, and even on occasion, the calling of fire services).

Sometimes, alarms go off as an intentional event. This will be the case if a company needs to do a maintenance check or a scheduled drill. Most times, however, they do so as the result of unintentional events like system failures, excessive dust in a smoke detector, or malfunctions with the control panel. All of them are very common occurrences that, if you ask me, should be a little more controlled as we're talking about potentially life-threatening events.

In theory, you should treat each alarm as if it was a real threat because, unless you are notified in advance that there will be a drill or maintenance period, you never truly know what’s caused it to go off.

Now, there’s a problem here, and we’ll cover it in a little more detail in the next section. But if you cry wolf too much (which is what fire alarms do and what the airport announcements do, too, I believe), when something serious does happen, people will just stop listening.

Lady with her fingers in her ears, wearing a stripy jumper

Was This a Process Fail?

If the purpose of the alarm we heard while staying at the hotel was to test that the system was working and to get people out of the building, well… as good an idea as that might seem, it failed because no one ever believes there is a real fire. Guests staying in their rooms is the last thing you want if there is a fire. But the trouble is that all these tests, drills and faults mean no one has any confidence in the alarm anymore as a life saving device. So, to start with, a security failure all around.

This is quite a standard scenario, not just in hotels but in all kinds of businesses. Repetitive announcements and processes make people take things for granted. So, every time you hear a fire alarm, you probably assume it’s a test and there’s no real risk. Now, if there is actually a fire, it seems we’re all likely to stay in the building and burn! Or at least some of the more lazy (or cynical) of us are.

So, is it a process fail?

Yes. I think it is. Fire alarms have gotten a “cry wolf” reputation because they seem to go off in non-emergency situations many times more than they do in emergency ones. I believe the issue is right there in this last sentence. We shouldn't have to hear alarms constantly; they should be an exception. There are a number of issues that can cause false alarms, but organisations should do their best to control these, so people treat the real situations accordingly.

Many users tend not to trust failure notifications when they have repeatedly shown to have been false alarms. At the same time, many employees will be scared to raise particular concerns for fear of them being nothing. This can all lead to flawed decision-making and, depending on your industry, safety issues. Any business that becomes numb to a process can end up facing catastrophic returns.

So, what should we do about false alarms? Well, of course, you should try your best to only cry wolf when there is a wolf present. Effective communication is essential to any good process, and it is something that needs to be constantly maintained. If you want people to pay attention and respond to genuine alerts of any sort, you should always make sure the noise doesn’t bury the message - so you or your business don’t go down in flames.


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