Fire Alarms Don’t Work

Last week at church, in the middle of the sermon, the fire alarm went off. It was loud, annoying and it went on for about 10 minutes before someone finally shut it off. The preacher even made a joke about it to which everyone chuckled.

While the alarm kept on wailing nobody moved. In fact everyone just remained in their seats smiling and looking at each other awkwardly. I instinctively knew what was on everyone’s mind because it was on mine too: this was just a false alarm.

Hearing the alarm finally stop wailing just confirmed all of our suspicions and the service resumed as usual. Nothing happened because nothing was amiss.

But I couldn’t help but ponder; what if there had really been a fire? What if the hall below or the ground floor was burning out of control, and by not reacting for those 10 minutes we had less chance of vacating the building safely? Should we be worried that our typical response to a fire alarm is to do nothing but wait for an outcome?

There is no doubt in my mind that fire alarms do alert people to fires. And that our lives are safer as a result of them being installed in all public buildings. But the fact that alarms go off accidentally so much that people are now conditioned not to react to them is troubling.

This sometimes boils down to poor construction. The fire system gets installed by a sub-contractor and the wires then get covered by the builder when they plaster the walls. Poor waterproofing leads to leaks in the building (a common problem in rainy Singapore) and this water wrecks havoc on all things electrical.

Theres also the problem of people’s habits. Whenever an alarm sounds people instinctively look around for signs of a fire; be it smoke of flames. When they don’t immediately see any signs they relax a bit and doubts form on whether there really is a fire or not. Most times people are more apt to wait patiently till the alarm stops, which is the case more often than not.

Like the boy who cried wolf, there may come a time when people aren’t conditioned to react to fire alarms anymore. And then when one really happens, maybe people won’t react quickly enough (or even at all) till it’s too late.

Singaporeans are used to living in a safe environment, free from rampant outbreaks of fire. For this we have our stringent fire safety code to thank. Even so, according to the Singapore Civil Defence Force, there were 4724 fires put out in 2014 alone, so we should never forget the ever present threat that fires still pose.

I’m no fire engineer but I believe that fire alarm systems need to be more robust especially with regard to being shielded from moisture. Perhaps fire alarms should be programmed to alert in shorter bursts of 1/2 a minute intervals with only the sustained presence of heat and smoke keeping it going longer. These smart systems would negate the effects of false alarms and give people a way to know if there’s a real emergency when the alarm keeps on sounding.

Clearly the problem is far more complex and no simple rambling on a blog would ever provide the best solution. However this is a real problem that has terrible implications when things go awry. Living in a safe environment breeds complacency which leads to a false sense of security. When the next big fire happens, will people really be prepared to react properly or will it all go up in flames? That I hope is a question that never has to be answered.