No alarm, it’s only a fire

Posted on March 24, 2011


When a fire alarm sounds you are supposed to drop whatever you are doing and leave the premises in an orderly fashion through designated emergency exits.

Perhaps a more realistic sign, although not ethical.

In reality, what happens in buildings across the country is something much different.

The sound of the alarm triggers a rolling of eyes, sighing, gathering of personal items, questions such as: ‘Is this a drill?’ and a secret inward hope that there is a real fire.

This, in my opinion, is a hang-up from school days, when the sudden interruption of a fire alarm meant you could guarantee missing 20 minutes of your class.

The teacher’s commands of ‘Be sensible!’ were barely audible over the raucous joy emitted from 30 young voices at being allowed to miss class.

Once gathered in the playground hushed whispers travelled along the queued lines, conspiring to keep the identities of the culprits who had set it off a secret.

And if it wasn’t known whether it was a drill or a pupil, the school-group collectively urged the school to burn up in flames before their eyes, taking some of the less pleasant members of staff with it, and giving everyone an extra holiday.

Perhaps it was the drama of the situation, or the freedom, or that everyone really hated math lessons.

Deep rooted reaction

These thoughts came to me as I found myself leaving the block of flats I am staying in at 2am, hoping that when I reached outside, orange flames would be licking through shattered windows.

At no point did I worry about the loss of thousands of pounds of treasured possessions. Nor the immediate danger to anyone inside, or the huge disruption finding emergency accommodation might be.

As it turned out, a grumpy security guard appeared, opened a panel, flicked a few switches and the alarm was turned off.

I, along with most of the other residents gathered outside, trudged back indoors, dragging our heels dissappointedly.

Psychological explanation

I cannot find an adequate psychological explanation for this irrational response, however, David Barber from Arup Fire explores the psychology of evacuation:

‘My research has shown that occupants in residential high-rise buildings are often reluctant to evacuate when a fire alarm sounds due to a lack of information, combined with a desire to stay within their unit where it is safe, if they are not directly threatened by a fire.’

‘This lack of motivation to evacuate is due to the occupant being within their home; their behaviour and response to a fire emergency is different at home than it would be at their place of work or another public setting, such as a shopping centre.’

I hope I never have to have these irrational feelings challenged by the prospect of an actual fire devouring my home.

So far as I can see it, this is just one odd side effect of the British school system that defies both logic and explanation.



Posted in: The Odd Box