The Numbing Down of America
As a nonsmoker, I always request a nonsmoking hotel room when traveling. Occasionally though, when there were no other rooms available, I have had no choice but to accept a smoking room. However, on a recent business trip, I got more smoke than I could have ever bargained for.
It was 10 a.m. at the Marriott Hotel in Albany, N.Y., when I was sitting at the desk in my room preparing to compose my monthly editorial. As I sat gathering my thoughts, I began to smell smoke. Aha, I thought to myself, the person in the next room must be smoking!
As I began to get up out of the chair to check the hallway outside of my room, the fire alarm went off. Immediately, hotel personnel announced on the voice-evacuation system that they were checking into the source of the alarm. When I cautiously opened my door, I was greeted by puffs of smoke blowing into my face. As I looked to my left down the hallway, I witnessed smoke billowing from the cracks around a doorframe only two doors down from me.
I grabbed my jacket (hey, it’s cold in Albany) and exited the opposite direction. At this point, a hotel employee in the hallway had a two-way radio and called the front desk to announce a mass evacuation. As I approached the nearest stairwell, there were a few people standing in front of the elevators waiting for it to come up to the 7th floor. “There is a fire,” I told them. “We need to leave down this stairwell because the elevators automatically are sent to the first floor during an alarm, and they are not coming up. Let’s go!”
They just looked at me with bewilderment and didn’t say a word. As I began my decent down the stairs and made it to the first floor, I noticed that nobody else was in the stairwell. I then exited the hotel though a door near the main entrance’s revolving doors. Within minutes, four fire trucks arrived. Then — and only then — did people finally start exiting via the stairwells.
As all this was going on, I couldn’t help but think about the comments FDNY Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto made during his riveting keynote address at the recent ISC East a few days prior (see “Industry Pulse In Depth” on page 20). He was the highest-ranking firefighter to survive 9/11’s World Trade Center collapse and the last to escape the destruction alive.
In his presentation, Picciotto quipped about how some people would take their good ole’ time to vacate buildings, even in the face of life-threatening circumstances. He recounted how a stock broker adamantly attempted to stay behind working on his computer to finish a deal after being given strict instructions to exit. In fact, they literally had to carry him out!
Is the public reaching the point where they have to actually witness a fire first-hand before they react to the situation? Have we become a society of little kids who need to put their hands on the stove to be sure it’s really hot instead of taking the advice of an authority? Does anyone pay attention any more?
From burglar alarms sounding in homes and businesses to EAS exit door alarms going off in retail stores to car alarms blaring in the streets — people are becoming desensitized to alarms of all kinds.
The culprit? I believe it is too many false alarms. It’s bad enough alarms have become a nuisance to local police and caused some to stop responding. But when the general public has become so numb they hardly give electronic warning devices a second thought, we are all in a heap of trouble. After all, we’re talking life/safety issues here!
What can we do? Plenty. For starters, I know it’s been said before, but we must all work together to make sure the false alarm problem is taken seriously — very seriously.
We as an industry rely on bells, sirens and lights to effectively alert people about potentially hazardous elements. How can we expect them to heed such devices and systems if they are routinely false? We can’t, but we certainly can lessen the incidences of such false alarms and instill people’s faith in our installations. In addition, we can create better public awareness of security and life-safety systems through our national and local trade associations.
Such accountability and education will go a long way toward ensuring our equipment succeeds in safeguarding as many people as possible. Who knows, maybe someday response to our systems will be as immediate as bells were for Pavlov’s dogs!
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