Speaker: John Comey, MSc, MEng, BEng, managing director, Comsec Protection Systems Ltd Building occupants’ response times to fire-alarm sounders is often not as immediate as it should be, according to an expert in the area.

Speaking during a lecture entitled 'Technological Aids to Fire Evacuation in Buildings', hosted by Engineers Ireland's Fire and Safety Division at the organisation's Dublin HQ, John Comey examines the three main reasons why this is the case: recognition, audibility and system confidence. In other words, are alarms recognised, are they heard and do people have confidence in the system? He also outlines how using other technologies, such as voice evacuation systems, can sometimes improve response and how it fails in other instances, illustrating this with examples from the literature and personal experience. Comey is the managing director of Comsec Protection Systems Ltd, a company with 30 years of experience providing a range of fire and security products and services to clients such as hospitals, pharmaceutical plants and nursing homes. According to Comey, most people are unlikely to respond appropriately to an alarm. Instead, they are likely to look to the reaction of others for guidance or, more commonly when in a public place, wait to be given instructions by staff as to what to do.

“The big influence on people deciding to leave is when they’re told to leave by the staff,” said Comey. Research carried out by the University of Ulster in Marks & Spencer stores backed up this position. Over half of those interviewed after the fire drills said they only left after being prompted to do so by staff. What Comey highlights, again backed up with extensive research as well as his own personal experience, is that live voice-alarm systems offer the best way to ensure an immediate response from occupants to an alarm.

“Studies from live voice systems show that when people are told what to do and given real information, they tend to evacuate because they’re being told by something that’s realistic,” said Comey. These studies show that information delivered by such systems should be simple and direct in identifying the problem and the location of the problem. They should also provide clear instructions as to what action should be taken. Comey emphasises the importance of adequate staff training to deal with such situations and shows his audience how this works in practice as part of his own research into reaction time at a maternity hospital. Those trained to activate evacuation procedures behave well, while those who are not are often unsure how to react to the alarm. A change of atmosphere is also an important factor in improving reaction time among the public. Comey talks about the 1981 Stardust nightclub fire in which 48 people died, describing how in the early stages of the fire the band continued to play.

Thankfully nowadays, most alarms in pubs and venues are linked to the PA system, automatically turning off music and shutting down tills. Comey goes on to explain the regulations for the degree of volume required for alarms and goes into detail about the requirements in different locations, as well as the challenges faced when dealing with different groups of people, such as the elderly and children. “It’s interesting when you talk about kids. Kids tend not to wake for alarms,” said Comey. “There’s one study that shows that 85% of children aged between six and 17 years slept through a three-minute, 60 decibel alarm, whereas 100% of adults woke to the same alarm. From other research, apparently the best thing to wake a child is their mother’s voice – even a recording of the mother’s voice.”