What more accurate epitaph could possibly be written for the current generation of building evacuation systems in the United States? On their best day they represent a low-cost, minimalist approach for getting people out the door in the event of a fire. At their worst, they are counter-intuitive and counter-productive-worse than useless.
In a recent column, I discussed linking our integrated audio, telephony, video and control systems to evacuation systems in order to get more people out of a facility or locale faster and more thoroughly. It's long past time for our society to demand more of its building-evacuation systems than it's getting now. They are not good enough.
Ironically, the technology on our side of the communications industry represents a quantum improvement over conventional alarm systems. That's why people pay the big money to see and hear our systems. It is time for that level of technology to migrate to evacuation systems.
The reactions to the column came in waves. The first was from what I call the Massachusetts contingent, or the group that makes a living from NFPA regulations. They commented on reliability, functional interfacing and potential operator error. Their underlying premise was that existing fire evacuation systems work just fine; thank you very much. One more thing-we do include a speech-intelligibility requirement, sort of. It is the only specification I know of using the word, "should," instead of "shall," "will" or "must." In other words, nonsense.
I would accept the turf argument except for a couple of minor issues. First, the price of incompetence in this arena is death, and too many people have been dying lately due to improper evacuation procedures.
Implicit in their design concept is that fire is at the root of all emergency evacuations. Based on the events of the last five years, I claim that's an assumption worth challenging. There are plenty of reasons to evacuate a building having nothing to do with fire. Another premise is that no system is fail-safe, no matter how many levels of redundancy and self-monitoring are built in.
The second is many people don't always take fire alarm systems seriously. The reasons are self-evident to anyone having experienced repetitious klaxon blaring and strobe light extravaganza. It this really a fire, or a test, perhaps some dunce down the hall having a bit of fun, a terrorist act, a tsunami, or possibly a levee breaking? Anybody remember the last NSCA in Orlando?
What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go? Is it any safer there than it is here? It is indeed a tale told by an idiot. More often than not it signifies nothing and only serves to remind you of your elementary school fire drill days.
Ironically, it's almost impossible to communicate to your coworkers when their fury is fully engaged. They create an environment of cacophony and confusion. One wonders if their primary design criterion is to be so obnoxious, you won't possibly remain where you are.
Yet their functionality is about as useless as the "check engine" light on a car's dashboard. There's a reason that most new cars have advanced video information display systems. Our culture demands more today than we did from our Buicks back in 1972.
The surprising second wave of reactions to the column sparked my curiosity. It came right after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. As was demonstrated during the evacuation of New Orleans, there is a psychology that intentionally ignores evacuation systems.
I've always assumed that most people will make the right decision given sufficiently correct and current information. A proper evacuation requires significantly more than blasting of a horn, flashing a light, a triggered canned message, or remote chance that someone having sufficient information, gumption, lucidity, and English/foreign language oratory skills to adequately communicate over 4-inch loudspeakers mounted on 80-foot centers will pick up the handheld microphone in the fire control room at just the right time.
Yet anyone faced with such an important decision as fight or flight will want to know:
What's going on? What are my options? How can I contact my loved ones? Where can I meet up with them? Are shelter and provisions available? Am I properly prepared? Will my possessions be safe? When can I return?
It would seem that every one of these questions could be answered with an intelligently executed plan connected to a robust and secure internet-based network and an integrated communications network linking many electronic systems together-not just one standalone system.
Self-determination is a great thing unless you're stuck in a stricken facility with no idea of what's going on. It's time we progress to the next step and use the technology we already have on hand to radically improve this situation.