Most of life’s alarms are false. / by Brooks Watson

The other day we responded to 12 “Automatic Alarm” calls. These are alarms activated by a set of sensors in the home or building. You’ve seen them before… no magic. Because these sensors alarm for anything that looks like smoke, heat, or fire (depending on the sensor), most of the alarms are false. Lots of things set off these sensors (weather, painters, dust, steam, etc). It happens so often that firefighters make assumptions about automatic alarms. We assume they’re false. This isn’t good practice, but it’s a logical conclusion. Only a small percentage of the time, the alarm is something significant. An alarm system is like the boy who cried wolf. All 12 calls were false.

In my dept. a fire call reported by a person is dispatched as a “FIRE” (makes sense right:). The odds that a “FIRE” is actually a fire is pretty high. When we hear “FIRE” we respond balls to the wall, ready to go to work. That same day, we had two “FIRE” calls reported by people. Both were legit fires.

Technically, we should respond to all alarms as if they’re all “FIRES”, but we don’t. When “Automatic Alarms” are dispatched, we send fewer rigs by policy, we drive slower, and we don’t take unnecessary risks. We stay aware that any one of these alarms could be real, but generally putting a lower priority on lower risk calls makes sense.

After the 12th false alarm, I thought maybe I respond like an automatic alarm sensor sometimes too. When my sensors detect a disturbance, or anything that resembles an emergency, the alarm can sound. Usually they’re things that are out of my control or problems I didn’t plan for. I have an automatic response that is not reasonable or helpful. It’s really amazing how I can get derailed by inconsequential things. Today it was getting stuck in the intersection with a red light camera staring at me. I just got a ticket this week, and the thought of getting another one set me off. Instant resentment against a machine that was going to send me another $220 fine. It took me about 5 seconds to remember that I was in the car alone and no one cared about my rant. It then occurred to me that I was making a left turn and they don’t ticket for that, usually. False alarm.

Ultimately, it almost never matters how I react. So, I’ve been working on developing better sensors to limit false alarms. Today didn’t feel very Zen, but I was grateful it lasted 5 seconds, not 5 hours like in years past. Back to work tomorrow… more lessons to learn.