My History of Fire Alarms and Health and Safety

In this world of stringent health and safety laws, it is easy to forget the fun and games that happened as such things developed. It is also a tale of how people such as the British have become more tolerant of rubbish systems.

This history starts in the heady days of the 1980s. I was at high school. My school, largely consisted of aging portacabins with holes in the walls and floors and pre-fabricated rooms built for housing soldiers in the second world war, designed to last ten years, but still in use fifty years later as classrooms. We did occasionally have fire drills, which consisted of the school secretary walking around the school ringing the fire bell. We were lucky after the sitting MP died, as this triggered a by-election.

We were also lucky to live in at the time, a three-way marginal constituency, which could be won by either Labour or the Conservatives (the seat had been held by both these parties historically) and the Liberal/SDP Alliance were popular. The issue of our school played a major role in the campaign, with all three parties committing to building a new school for the town. The Alliance candidate won.

So, a new school was built! During the first week in the new school the fire alarm went off between every lesson. The builders had been silly and placed a fire alarm button at the point where the door handle at the top of a flight of stars was, so if the door was opened with force (which happened a lot, this was a school!) it hit the fire alarm button. This button was quickly moved!  I was growing up with the idea that fire alarms were fairly silly and generally ineffectual.

When I went to university, i spent the first year in a newly built hall of residence, which had new fangled smoke detectors. It was miserable, the alarms would go off on average about three times a day, sometimes six or seven times. We didn’t have to evacuate the building back then. So the residents set up a rota, by which when the alarms went off, someone was allocated to use the key at the alarm machine to reset the system. So, generally we ignored the alarms! It was frequently discussed and the residents decided that in the event of an actual fire someone would bang on the doors of flats shouting ‘fire’. Rendering the alarm system utterly pointless. It was a new system and part of the problem was that smoke detectors had been installed in the kitchens rather than heat sensors, no-one does this now, as obviously cooking creates smoke! Residents got into the habit of unscrewing the detectors whilst cooking and then obediently putting them back in after cooking. By the spring, people started socialising outside, to a backdrop of alarms going off in the various blocks of flats.

So, one day the university noticed that the security staff weren’t being notified about the alarms going off, people had stopped bothering to inform them after the first week of term! The accommodation staff decided to take the keys away from the alarm machines and left a note to say to contact security whenever the alarms went off and security would reset the machines. The students complained that this would mean these very loud alarms would go off for five to ten minutes several times a day and during the night. So the students decided to unscrew all the smoke detectors from the building until the university resolved the situation, in any case exams were coming up and people wanted to sleep relatively undisturbed. The next day, the keys came back, as replacing the whole system at short notice would perhaps be too expensive.

People still generally ignore fire alarms or grudgingly vacate buildings. I was at a conference recently. The fire alarm went off. people got up ready to leave, then the alarm system gave out a message, everyone stopped to listen, could this be a false alarm? The message was ‘This is not a test, there may be a fire in the building, please vacate the building’, then people vacated the building!

Sometimes visitors to the UK, express surprise at the casual attitude British people have to fire alarms and how we tolerate bad systems. The technology has developed, false alarms are a lot less frequent these days, to the point where when one goes off I’ve noticed that I start to think there may actually be a fire, whereas I used to expect a false alarm.

It’s a crazy world. Often I think younger people forget that civilisation survived for centuries without fire alarms, mobile technology or health and safety laws. I was brought up to be personally responsible, in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to such an extent anymore; to think about potential consequences and to not do anything stupid as I shouldn’t expect safety systems to be there. It is an interesting question, do health and safety systems breed a reliance on  these systems? These days the advice is to ensure you have a mobile device charged up whilst driving in case of emergencies. Whereas, people are less likely to carry a sleeping bag, water supply and a torch in their cars these days. There seems to be a reliance on technology and support systems rather than reliance on the self.