You may have already heard the infamous story about how, a few summers ago, a janitor at a private research university in Troy, New York heard what was described as “annoying alarms.” While cleaning up, he found the equipment that was making the alarm noises and unplugged it. Yes, that definitely turned off the alarm – and it also shut down a refrigerator that was storing more than 20 years of research.
It’s not surprising that the university immediately sued the cleaning company over decades of lost work. But this also points to several larger problems with security alarms, and audible alarms in general. That includes:
- Audible alarms don’t provide much information beyond a siren. The noise doesn’t inform listeners why it’s happening. Yes, some alarms can use different beeps or noise levels to indicate what’s happening, but that takes training to understand what those mean, and even then, it’s not very effective.
- Alarms are annoying. Sometimes, that’s the point. But alarm indicators that keep on going can encourage humans to ignore the “why” and focus on the “make it stop.” Here, that led to research being destroyed. At a business, that could mean a door gets left open when it should be closed, or safety procedures get ignored to save time.
- Constant alarms drown out meaning. We’ve talked before about how alarm fatigue, especially in noisy environments like hospitals, can cause our brains to just shut down. That’s a big sign of problems when it leads to ignoring emergencies.
- Access control issues. Why was a janitor able to shut down a freezer system at all? Why was someone without any training allowed in this area? The lawsuit specifically calls this out, stating that the janitor should have had necessary training and supervision in a controlled area so they would know how to respond to something like an alarm.
So, audible alarms struggle when it comes to more complex security and warning systems. How do alarm installers address these issues? Several additional precautions can help.
Adding an explanation to any alarm is very helpful. Alarm installers see this all the time thanks to today’s smart alarms, both residential and commercial. These come with alert messages that are sent as texts or emails, so owners get immediate notification about why an alarm is sounding, no matter where they are. This helps avoid confusion and address issues before something bad happens.
Notifications don’t only have to route to the owner of a business or system, either. They can be tailored to show up on specific platforms and gated via access or authorization. A common example is an alarm that sends a direct notification to a security guard, who can take a closer look and take action if necessary.
However, while notifications can help, they can also be ignored. In the lawsuit above, the freezer in question was under repairs (part of the reason it was making beeping sounds). The staff not only knew this, but included a warning note placed on the freezer that it did not require cleaning, that an alarm was sounding, and that the alarm could be muted by pressing a button. The janitor ignored all these instructions! How do you account for risks like humans just being…human? That brings us to another important solution.
Mass Notification Systems and EVACs (Emergency Voice Alarm Communication)
Mass Notification Systems offer an enhanced alarm system to specifically address more complicated warning needs. The goal is to alert not just one person via a message or have only localization notes, but to alert many people in the area.
This process accomplishes a few things. First, it contacts many people at once via audio or visual messages, so it’s much less likely that one person can mistake what the alarm means. Second, it has a higher chance of notifying experts and experienced workers who can quickly coordinate and choose the best response, even if others don’t know what to do.
A more advanced form of this method is the EVAC, which adds a specific voice alarm that can define the alarm and give additional instructions to remove any misunderstanding.
Robust alarm systems combine both audio and visual signals. For the average alarm, that usually means flashing lights, a vital addition for accessibility, and very noisy workplaces where audio alarms may go unnoticed.
Flashing lights can also play another purpose in customized alarm systems. Placement can prove very useful when highlighting what everyone should be paying attention to. That includes pointing the way toward emergency exits, emergency shut-off valves, or important instructions in case something has gone wrong. Aligning these vital options with visual cues can prove very useful.
Audible alarms like sirens have their shortcomings, especially when it comes to delivering information. This can confuse or annoy people rather than providing helpful services during an emergency. But installers can work with clients to help choose systems that mitigate these problems. That can include helpful visual alarms, and alarms connected to announcements or notifications that provide key information.