20 Nov 2019

“We ignored the fire alarm because it goes off all the time” said many of the 211 students who were incredibly lucky to escape death as a fire ravaged their student residence at The Cube in Bolton on Friday 15th November 2019.

Many others, who spoke to the Manchester Evening News reporters also said they had ignored the sounding alarms.

Summing up what the result of ignoring fire alarms could mean, one student tweeted “The thought that I would have been dead if the smell hadn’t woken me up, is traumatising.”

Now, before you say ‘typical lazy students’ or any such knee-jerk response, let’s look at WHY they ignored the fire alarms. According to Phil Turtle, HHSRS inspector with compliance specialists Landlord Licencing & Defence (LLDL), “Here we have a classic case of False Alarm Fatigue. I see examples of this all the time as I inspect HMOs and other rental properties.”

One student summed up the situation perfectly: “The fire alarm was going off, but nobody was paying any attention, IT GOES OFF ALL THE TIME, maybe every hour during the day, because somebody does something in the kitchen and it’s set off the alarms.”

Other students said, “I heard the alarm, but it kept going off so I thought it was just a drill until one of my flatmates shouted down the corridor that it was a real fire.” Another said, “I was just sitting there, not really doing anything, then someone knocked on my door.”

So, here’s the potentially-deadly problem: The design and operation of the alarm system had TRAINED most of the 211 students to ignore the alarms.

LLDL’s Turtle explained: “Faced by ‘false alarms every hour’ during the day and often ‘three or four times’ at night (even if these are slightly over-stated), Pavlovian Conditioning kicks in and the occupants become programmed to believe there’s always a 99.9 per cent likelihood any alarm sounding is a false alarm. And let’s be honest, nobody is going to evacuate their home on an hourly basis. Even less likely in the middle of the night.”

False alarms

It appears obvious that the Fire Alarm system was not properly designed to avoid false alarms. Worse still, the students are fully aware of this and so there is no excuse for the landlord or building manager not being aware and not having taken corrective measures to stop the False Alarm Fatigue.

We can all recall Aesop’s fable of “the boy who cried wolf” once too often with disastrous results as the villagers think ‘another false alarm’ and the wolf eats his sheep.

The avoidance of false alarms is a critical element of system design if death or injury due to ‘false alarm fatigue’ is to be avoided.

According to Turtle, “Here’s the scary thing, we are ALL conditioned to ignore fire alarms already!”

Think back to occasions where you’ve been in a hotel lounge, company meeting room or restaurant when the fire alarm has sounded.

Nobody moves.

Instead people sit uneasily, looking at each other thinking ‘probably not real’, ‘it’ll stop in a minute.’ A minute late people are thinking or saying ‘it’s not stopping’, ‘do you think it’s real?’ and finally ‘I guess we’d better get out – just in case it is real’.

Human Factors

At Landlord Licensing and Defence, we are very concerned that Fire Alarm system designs do not currently appear to take the blindly obvious danger of ‘False Alarm Fatigue’ into account – yet this one factor renders many fire alarm installations all but useless.

And this is despite seven sections in the LACORS Housing Fire Safety Guide (which is used by Councils and Landlords nationwide as the bible for fire system design) stating the need to avoid False Alarms and insisting that ‘Clear fault and false alarm reporting arrangements should be put in place, and the responsible person or his/her agent should respond to reports at the earliest opportunity.’

If we are to learn anything from the Bolton Cube and many other fires it is that ‘False Alarm Fatigue’ needs to be designed and engineered out of the physical system.

For example, the fire detection system must be able to differentiate between burnt toast or sausages and a real fire. The system must be able to do this even if the kitchen door is propped open (yes we know it shouldn’t be, but it will be – this is just an unavoidable fact of humans living humanly). So even if the kitchen is correctly fitted with a ‘heat’ detector, not a ‘smoke’ detector – the benefit of that is lost if there is a sensitive ‘smoke’ detector just outside the kitchen door.

“Ah, but students / tenants set the alarms off for a prank,” we hear landlords and building managers moan.

Well stop them!

Lives are at risk! If necessary, train CCTV cameras on the ‘fire call points’ then any fool setting them off can, and must, be brought to book.

Put notices next to call points such as ‘False alarms can kill, don’t risk a manslaughter charge’, (OK, we know the likelihood of a such a charge is low because of the difficulty of proving causality, but ‘speed camera’ signs are proven to work when there isn’t one!)

All residences

“We’re not just talking student residences here,” says Turtle. “As a certified Housing Health and Safety Rating System inspector I frequently see rental homes and HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupation) where smoke detectors are covered in Sellotape, with socks, or even with condoms stretched over them to stop the false alarms.”

Where alarms are battery operated (or even mains operated with battery back-ups), we see that tenants have often remove them completely! Why? ‘Because the beeping was driving us mad,’ they say.

Now these human actions are potentially even more dangerous than the False Alarm Fatigue effect that they are a symptom of. Because, in a real fire, the alarm is not going to sound at all.

Change is needed

According to Turtle and his colleagues at Landlord Licencing and Defence, there are the things that need to change:

  1. All fire alarm systems need to be designed to make false alarms as near non-existent as humanly possible. Fire Risk Assessors need to cover human factors in their Fire Risk Assessments.
  2. Landlords and building managers need to ensure they are made aware of, and log, every single false alarm, and to understand WHY it happened.
  3. Once aware of False Alarms, landlords and building managers need to get alarm experts to modify the system to engineer these false alarms out of the system.
  4. Everyone involved in fire alarms needs to understand that no amount of ‘lecturing’ and ‘instructing’ tenants or occupants is going to overcome our deeply in-built human ways.
  5. It is no good saying ‘the system was correct’ if you ignored human factors and the occupants are now dead or maimed.
  6. It is essential for designers, engineers, landlord and building managers to understand, the humans are a critical PART of the System.
  7. That said, once false alarms have been engineered out of a poorly designed system, it is the landlord or building manager’s responsibility to convince residents that they can now trust the system.

It’s not an easy task, but an explanation individually or to a group to say ‘We’ve identified the cause of the false alarms – here’s what we’ve done to stop it happening again – and now if you hear the alarm, it’s real so drop everything and GET THE HELLL OUT!

LLDL’s Turtle concludes, “Leaving the human element out of any system design is a route to system failure. Don’t let it be a route to unnecessary deaths on your watch!”

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