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Why you should always respond to the fire alarm

Why you should always respond to the fire alarm

Test:imagine you are in the office and you hear the fire alarm. What are you doing?1. Go to the toilet 2. Turn off the computer 3. Send an email4. Waiting for permission to leave 5. Put on different shoes 6. Ask colleagues if they know what is going on7. Go outside as soon as possibleRead here what most people do.

Test done? Then you are probably curious about what other people are doing. On average, people perform four activities before they actually respond to the fire alarm and start moving. The time people take for unnecessary actions varies from one to twenty minutes, but also has peaks of half an hour. Why do we react so slowly? Because we are herd animals.


It took six hours to get everyone out of the building during the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The fact that the same building was evacuated in 100 minutes in 2001 is partly due to the work of the now deceased Canadian researcher Guyléne Proulx. She was an expert on human behavior in the event of fire. Her research resulted in better escape routes and emergency lighting, among other things. Nevertheless, Proulx concluded, there was a weak link that slowed down any flight behavior:humans. When the fire alarm sounds, you might think people are jumping up and running to the nearest emergency exit. But no, seventy-five percent of people, when they hear a fire signal, consider it a false alarm goes. Valuable time is lost in the event of a fire.

Useless actions

Not only do people initially ignore the fire signal Even if it is clear that something is wrong, people still lose time with useless actions before going outside. Proulx also investigated the flight behavior during the eviction of the WTC on September 11, 2001. She found that it took people an average of nine minutes to leave their workplace. And in those nine minutes they did all kinds of things:change their shoes, shut down their computers, make a phone call, put on their coats, wait for permission to leave, get their things together or go to the bathroom. Some took up to half an hour. Only ten percent of the people omitted this and immediately looked for the exit.

Why you should always respond to the fire alarm Why you should always respond to the fire alarm

Why are we responding so slowly?

The question, of course, is why people react so slowly and against expectations. Because people are social beings and fall back on their group behavior in case of emergency. One of the most shocking examples of this is the classic experiment of two American psychologists. An unsuspecting test subject is placed in a room that is slowly being filled with smoke. The subject is unaware that the others in the room are actors who have been instructed not to respond to the obvious fire signals. The experiment can be viewed – without sound – on YouTube, where it can be seen that a test subject remains in a room full of smoke for at least twenty minutes. Only one in ten gets up to report the fire signals.

Alone in a room

Would they react differently if they were alone in that room? The researchers naturally wondered that too, so they repeated the experiment with someone sitting alone in the room. Although three quarters of subjects went to report the fire in this situation, a quarter still sat without doing anything.

Never take the elevator

In 2006, a fire broke out in a skyscraper in Chicago around 5 p.m. With this office fire , which killed six people, fifty-one percent of people were found to have taken the elevator instead of the fire escape. The psychologists who studied the escape behavior during this fire explained the frequent and dangerous use of the elevator due to the time of the fire, five o'clock in the afternoon. A time that many people associate with leaving their office every day – by elevator.

Subway Fire

That in case of brand . people staying in the role they currently have is also the main conclusion of the English professor of psychology David Canter † His research included the major London Underground fire in King's Cross in 1987 and the fire in the Bradford football stadium. in 1985. In that last fire, two football supporters discovered that it was literally getting very hot under their feet, they saw flames under their seats. The fire, which eventually killed fifty-six people, tried to extinguish them by pouring coffee over it. When that didn't work, they enlisted the help of an officer, who then informed his superior, who in turn walked around the entire football field to take a look at the stands.

Why you should always respond to the fire alarm Why you should always respond to the fire alarm

It is known about these and other fires in football stadiums that football supporters remain in their role of supporter for a long time and sometimes only start moving after it is clear that the match has really been cancelled.

Fighting fire

The role that people have at a certain moment – ​​more or less coincidentally – therefore determines how they act when there is a fire hazard. Records of the London Underground fire indicate that some people saw the start of the fire but did not react to it as they remained in their role as Tube passenger. Putting out fires is not part of that role. It is even known that travelers on their way down saw smoke coming from the wooden (!) escalators and yet did not deviate from their way to the underground.

The employees also remained in their role as employees for a long time. They lost a lot of valuable time investigating the fire. A junior employee first took a look, after which he called his superior, who in turn went to look again. Meanwhile, the subways continued to run and although drivers had been instructed not to stop at the station, some still let their passengers alight at the life-threatening subway station. David Canter confirms his findings from that time by e-mail. “Our most important discovery is that people generally continue with an existing pattern of behaviour. A pattern that they consider suitable for that place, even if there is danger.'

Run outside

The task you are doing at the time of the alarm also has an impact. Those who work with dedication and pleasure are less inclined to give up work and storm outside. The same goes for pleasurable pursuits. Anyone who is just trying on new shoes or watching a nice movie is less likely to run outside than a student during the last hour of social studies.

Why you should always respond to the fire alarm

Emergency exit

So the problem is not always the time it takes people to get to an emergency exit, but the time it takes for people to realize they have to leave the building. And once they have started to move, they still do not show efficient flight behaviour. On the contrary. Most choose familiarity under stress. They would rather take the route they know than a shorter, safer, but unknown escape route. They are even willing to walk through highly toxic smoke instead of turning around to look for an alternative.


The latter was discovered by the Dutch researcher Margarethe Kobes. She obtained her PhD at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the VU on human escape behavior in the event of a fire. Her test subjects had registered for an experiment that would take place in Hotel Veluwemeer † At the end of a day of road safety testing, they were kindly thanked and received an overnight stay in the hotel as a reward. “That's when the real experiment started,” says Kobes. One by one, the test subjects were called out of their beds in the middle of the night, telling them that there was a fire and that they had to leave the hotel as soon as possible. The researchers then looked at how each hotel guest made his or her own way out. “Building designers assume that in an emergency, people will flee via the shortest route,” says Kobes. “Seventy percent of the hotel guests chose the front door, while the emergency exit was closer.” When Kobes presented the same scenario in a virtual environment, thirty-five percent of the subjects did not choose the emergency exit even with detectable smoke. Kobes's investigation also showed that the signs to the emergency exit were barely noticeable. "People don't see them. They also choose the familiar route much more often. Also because they are not used to taking the fire exit. If you work on the thirteenth floor of an office building, you are more likely to take the elevator than the fire escape. But it would actually be good to take that fire escape every now and then, so that you know where it is in emergency situations.'

What can you do?

What can you do? Keep in mind that a fire cannot always be seen or smelled and can develop very quickly. When you are in a hotel or new building, always look for the escape routes. Look where the fire escape is and never take the elevator. So:NEVER!

It is known about the World Trade Center eviction that the fewer managers there were, the longer it took people to leave. If no one in authority is present, take charge yourself as soon as possible! Give clear instructions and remain calm.

The main entrance is not necessarily the fastest way out of a building. Note the illuminated signs and paths on the ground. The alarm itself doesn't provide any information, so don't rely on it. Don't think that nothing is wrong because everyone around you is calm. There is rarely panic when an alarm goes off. Panic only arises when people realize that they can no longer leave a building. And:buy a fire blanket and a fire extinguisher for at home! Do you know this design fire blanket already?

Text:Manon Sickle. Image:Getty Images

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