News and Tribune


April 5, 2013

STAWAR: This is alarming news


 Researchers have shown that most people fail to respond quickly to fire and other emergency alarms. 

Norman Groner, a psychologist at John Jay College in New York says, “People’s natural inclination is to want to define a situation before they respond ... an alarm bell is inherently ambiguous.”

Studies have shown that almost two-thirds of the time that it takes people to evacuate a building is spent milling about trying to gather further information. 

In many cases, people don’t realize what alarms mean. Daniel Ellis from Columbia University found that only 14 percent of people correctly interpreted the sound of a fire alarm as a genuine emergency. Excessive drills and false alarms can lead to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” scenario. People may inaccurately conclude that alarms are meaningless, like that “check engine light” on your car. 

This tendency is further reinforced by our own wishful thinking. When we lived in Florida, people who had lived through a lot of past hurricanes often failed to take warnings seriously. 

 According to Groner, vocal alarms are much more effective than sound alarms, since they can tell people the location and nature of the threat, as well as the best action to take. Where I work, we recently initiated an emergency notification system that broadcasts text messages, e-mails and voicemails to all employees, depending on what they have signed up to receive. 

 I believe that if the authorities are really serious about wanting people to evacuate buildings in response to fire alarms, they need to bring back the fire escape chute. No one can resist them. 

Also, if someone would like to appoint me as senior patrol boy, I’d be happy to boss everyone around to make sure they obeyed. Just don’t forget my badge and belt.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring, the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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