The LWF Blog

Facilities Management – Voice Alarm Systems – Part 2

November 17, 2016 1:16 pm

Last week, as a part of our Fire Safety series for those who work in Facilities Management, we gave an overview of how voice alarm systems work. Today, we will look at why they are considered to work well and how this has been backed by research.


In the 1980s a piece of research was undertaken which looked specifically at how people behave in public places when a fire alarm is sounded. (Canter, D (Ed) Fires and Human Behaviour. 2nd Edition. David Fulton Publishers Limited. ISBN 1853461393).  Professor Cantor looked at the motivation of building occupants to evacuate a building once a fire alarm had sounded and also investigated the potential for panic.


A part of his research focussed on the ability of people to respond appropriately to fire alarm sounds and found that largely, they did not. Far from the panicked building exits depicted in some fictional works, the research showed that building occupants – particularly ones in public places – weren’t sure if the alarm indicated fire or another emergency, or wished to finish what they were doing before evacuating the building.


Indeed, some thought the alarm might be a test of the system or simply did not believe that there was a fire and that they were in danger. This reticence to act leads to an extended response time to the alarm which delays ultimate building evacuation and can, and indeed has, caused deaths due to fire.


Behavioural psychologists believe that the received information indicating that people are likely to panic in fire situations, causing them to act irrationally, is in most cases untrue and that any erratic actions which might take place are more due to a sense of self-preservation, coupled with the fact that a fire alarm system does not give any real information aside from a sounder which means ‘evacuate the building’.


As both issues raised – complacency that it is not an urgent fire situation, or confusion because of lack of information – relate to how the alarm is received by the building occupants, it is something which can be helped by providing more information via voice alarm systems.


This research and its conclusions lead to considerable changes in how fire management was approached particularly in large or complex builds and in places where the public gather. Voice alarm systems are now commonly used where there may be large numbers of the public, where evacuation procedures may be more complex than a simple ‘all out’ system and where there may be complacency about evacuation.


Some common uses of a voice alarm system in a building include high rise buildings with phased evacuation, air and rail terminals, public assembly buildings such as theatres and cinemas and large shopping centres.


In our next blog, we will look at how voice systems worked with the design code of practice. In the meantime, if you have any queries about your own facilities or wish to discuss this blog series, please contact Peter Gyere in the first instance on 0208 668 8663.


Lawrence Webster Forrest is a fire engineering consultancy based in Surrey with over 25 years’ experience, which provides a wide range of consultancy services to professionals involved in the design, development and construction and operation of buildings.


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