Fire experts have long questioned why people do not respond to siren-based alarms, and even touted voice evacuation systems as a better alternative for eliciting a quick response to an emergency situation, with some justification.
The authors of a study published by US peer-reviewed journal, Pediatrics (cited in Psychology Today) that looked at the impact of modifying smoke alarms to emit voice warnings reported that nine out of ten children woke up within two seconds of hearing a motherly-sounding electronic voice, compared to two minutes of continuous exposure to a high-pitched siren alarm.
Explaining this behaviour, Professor John Drury, an expert on crowd psychology at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, says:
"Whilst there is often a tendency to under-estimate risk in potential emergencies, certain features of the signal exacerbate this. Unfortunately, the judgement people make that a bell or siren is a test or a malfunction is often correct. These forms of alarm are simply unreliable as signals. The review evidence demonstrates that these kinds of signals are relatively ineffective at both getting people to recognize danger and beginning to evacuate.
"A key problem with the bell or siren signal is that it is information-poor. So, in a situation where people hear such a signal they will understandably look at the responses of others around them, particularly where they trust the judgement of these others (for example they believe the others have better knowledge of the venue than themselves.) But where the others are also under-estimating risk and not understandably trusting the signal, this leads to serious delays in egress. The serious issue here is that failing to respond quickly enough to danger (rather than responding too urgently) is the main cause of death in hazards such as fires.
The task for alarm manufactures and safety officials is to increase the reliability and hence the trustworthiness of alarm signals."
Dr. Anne Templeton who lectures in social psychology at the University of Edinburgh, concurs:
"Previous research on crowd behaviour in emergencies suggests that physical crowds can quickly become psychologically unified and collectively self-organise safe behaviour in emergencies, often acting as first responders in the absence of emergency services. This has become apparent in numerous emergencies, such as the reactions of survivors of the July 7th 2005 London bombings where research on survivors by Drury, Reicher and Cocking indicated crowd members quickly established a shared group identity (the perception of others as group members) through the shared fate of the attack and established social norms of how to behave. This shared group identity also occurs in other types of emergencies, such as earthquakes and flooding.
"In these emergencies, crowd members came together in the immediate aftermath of the emergency to self-organise support for one another. The collective self-organisation can have significant positive consequences, such as crowd members providing first aid, and using social media to provide safe shelter and distribute food and resources. In other instances, however, it can lead crowd members to put themselves at significant risk in order to help fellow group members by delaying evacuation in order to stay with others to provide support. One reason that delays to evacuating may occur is that crowd members may not have the sufficient knowledge or skills to perform first aid, which could cause hesitation or put others as risk.
"A recent example of this can be seen in Lord Kerlsake’s 2018 inquiry into the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester which found members of the public attempted to help people who were injured but lacked the requite skills. In sum, this suggests that in crowds will try to help another in emergency situations but may lack the relevant infrastructure and training."
Templeton also believes the relationship between members of a crowd and personnel who are issuing them with emergency instructions can slow the speed of an evacuation:
"Recent social psychological research on mass emergency decontaminations (organised by Public Health England) has demonstrated that crowd members have greater trust in information provided by professional first responders and exhibit higher amenability to guidance when they perceive those giving the instructions as being legitimate.
"Moreover, a report for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction provided three recommendations for facilitating safe crowd behaviour in emergencies. First, to accommodate the public desire to provide help, which could build unity and trust. Second, provide the crowd members with information about how to act. Third, build trust by increasing the perceived legitimacy of the professional first responders to increase the chance of the public sharing social identity with them in order to internalise the guidance provided to them. Combined, these findings indicate that inter-group barriers between the crowd and safety professionals could be decreased by enhancing existing communication guidance to improve their perceived legitimacy, focusing on providing information to the crowd and working with it rather than against it". (Drury, Reicher, Carter, Cocking, Amlot, Rubin, & Williams, 2014).
Heeding such findings, and mindful of inadequacies in warning systems exposed by tragic events including the June 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy in the United Kingdom, alarm manufacturers are increasingly creating more comprehensive systems for detection, alarming, evacuation and danger management that meet the needs of ever more complex buildings.
Visual and acoustic alarming protects once designated as suitable for the hearing-impaired or employees working in noisy environments are fast becoming a mainstay that can be adapted to the different requirements of different zones within a building and provide customised instructions for ensuring the safest and quickest of exits.