What’s your first reaction when you hear a fire alarm? If you respond like the vast majority of the population it is probably one of disbelief, and the chances are that you will initially ignore it. Perhaps that’s not surprising. It’s been estimated that for every true alarm there are 46 false ones. Fortunately, evacuation from a burning building is not something we generally encounter in our everyday lives. Yet information on how people react is of vital importance when determining appropriate fire safety measures and the means of escape. A number of studies over recent years have provided some useful insights. It is not always the case, for instance, that a person seeing smoke interprets it as evidence of a fire: smoke from a restaurant kitchen may actually be a normal occurrence. This indicates that certain signals are likely to interpreted differently depending on building use and scenario. More often than not, people choose to leave a building the same way they came in, even if there are better alternatives available. Behavioral scientists will tell you that people choose the familiar over the unfamiliar. A person who has to decide how to get out of a building in an emergency is likely to be under significant psychological and even physical stress. Successful evacuation from a building with uncontrolled fire is partly dependent on physical values such as distance, dimensions of exits and density of smoke, and partly on psychological values such as communication processes, perception, conceptualization, understanding, evaluation and decision. A recent study in a large department store investigated how people choose an escape route and their reactions to different means of raising the alarm. The variables tested were familiarity with the exit, distance to the exit and status of the exit (i.e. whether it appeared to be open or closed). Researchers also looked at how subjects perceive and understand a ring signal and a spoken message. Subjects were also tested on their understanding of directional warning signs. The results showed that the cash exit, when at the same distance as the emergency exit, was the most popular choice. The result only changed when the cash exit was double the distance of the emergency exit. An open emergency exit also proved more attractive than a closed one. The three variables – familiarity, distance and status (i.e. open/closed) interacted in such a way that even though familiarity was preferred, this preference was weakened by increased distance and the availability of an open emergency exit door.
Interestingly enough, most of the subjects perceived and understood the meaning of the ring signal as if it was an ordinary, unspecified alarm. Only one in five perceived it as a fire alarm, and only six per cent thought it meant evacuation. Much more notice was taken of a spoken message, even if it was non-specific in terms of the reason for the evacuation and did not provide direction to nearest exit. When it came to identifying the meaning of six different warning signs, the subjects performed reasonably well. Three signs, no smoking and two emergency exit signs, were identified by all. Warnings for radioactivity and fire hose signs presented the most difficulty in terms of perception, probably because these are relatively uncommon in most people’s experience. Unless you have had direct involvement with a fire, it is very difficult to convey that experience to other people. Films and TV dramas have depicted fire in many different ways, not all of which are factual or helpful. Fire is a phenomenon that we have become familiar with over many years, and this may lead to complacency and high-risk behavior. Fire safety training seeks to redress these misunderstandings and equip people with knowledge that will assist in reacting to alarms, fire and associated emergency indicators. Even a small amount of practice, training and mental awareness can mean the difference between life and death.
This article was contributed by Firepoint Inc, serving the GTA since 1997, developing fire department approved fire safety plans for newly constructed and existing buildings. Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, the bulletin publishers and authors do not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current and shall not be liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the bulletin information. Bulletin reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited without the written consent of Firepoint Inc. Copyright 2021 – All Rights Reserved. See www.firepoint.ca or call 905-874-9400.