Monday, December 26, 2005

When alarms aren't alarming enough

The other night I was up in my bedroom messing around on the computer when I became aware of an odd noise coming from downstairs. It was a pattern of beeps repeating every three seconds or so: beep, beep... beep, beep... beep, beep... and so on. I was curious as to what it was, but since my mom and dad were both downstairs I figured they could take care of whatever was making the noise.

About ten minutes later, I became aware of another noise: "WHAT THE %^&@ ARE YOU DOING?! GET DOWN HERE!" I rushed down the steps and was greeted by a thin haze of smoke, the smell of burnt garlic, and two very irate parents. Mom had left some garlic bread in the oven too long and it had burned into charcoal. The beeping sound I had heard was the smoke alarm, and Mom and Dad were justifiably upset that I hadn't come down to see what the problem was.

Naturally, I was equally upset, and more than a little concerned. From my position up on the second floor, the sound of the smoke alarm was unobtrusive. Had I been playing music, I probably wouldn't have heard it; had I been asleep in bed at the time, I might not have even woken up. There is a smoke detector right above my bedroom door, but by the time the smoke reached it, it might have been too late to do anything but climb out the window and hope that our insurance would cover the damage.

So the alarm was difficult for me to hear--but that's not the worst of it. The fact is, it just didn't sound like a smoke alarm to me. It sounded like the microwave, or the oven timer, or the UPS on the downstairs computer, or any of the other "hey, pay attention to me" noises made by various appliances in the house. Back when I was in the dorms at U of I, the fire alarms were VERY loud and impossible to ignore. Whether it was caused by something minor (like burnt popcorn, or some idiot opening the emergency door) or something significant (like the time a completely different idiot broke open a fire extinguisher and spilled its contents down the stairwell), the alarm made it abundantly clear that everyone should get out of the building RIGHT NOW. And everyone got out, because the alternative was to burn and die, or at least go deaf from the siren.

The downstairs smoke alarm, on the other hand, sounded no more urgent than any other alarm in the house, and considerably less urgent than, say, the telephone. This tells me a couple of things: first, that the alarm sound could have been better designed to be more attention-getting; and second, that we have far too many alarm noises happening in the house. It's like the little boy who cried wolf--there are so many alarms trying to our attention for minor things that when an actual emergency comes up, it's hard to recognize it.

I'm not presenting this as an excuse. I know what the smoke alarm sounds like, and I will not ignore it again. But it's definitely something to think about.

------

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home