Most of us wake up to an alarm clock, have an alarm on the microwave, set off our smoke detector every time we toast some bread, an iPhone that chimes to let us know we have a meeting and a neighbour whose car alarm wakes the neigbourhood most nights at three in the morning.
So many gadgets warning us of .... well nearly everything, results in a desentitisation to the urgency of alarms. I'm not telling you anything you dont know. Look around you next time the fire alarm at your local shopping centre activates. Do you see people fleeing for the nearest exit? Generally not.
Alarms are ambiguous. They let us know something somewhere is wrong. Unless we can ascertain what and where and whether it's even our problem to investigate, or a problem that is going to affect us, we are socially conditioned not to 'over-react'. In fact we are socially conditioned to take our behavioural cues from those around us.
Back to the shopping centre scenario I mentioned previously, those patrons strolling the mall or those actively shopping will take their cue after an alarm activation from those around them. If no one changes their behaviour then no apparent danger is perceived and little if any action results from the sounding of an alarm. If however, the alarm is combined with a physical indicator such as smoke, an explosion, or perhaps the smell of leaking gas then the ambiguity is removed and people will generally react. As people react then the surrounding people are given permission (so to speak) to react as well. It's now perceived as OK to look or behave in a concerned way or even take action and evacuate because your behaviour is not out of place when compared to those around you.
So, what is the solution to eliciting action out of people who are not so close to the cause of an alarm to be immediately affected by the somatic cue of the emergency?
Voice commands in conjunction to the alarm. The power of a 'call to action' or a direct instruction from an authority figure will generally create the previously mentioned 'permission' to change your behaviour. This understanding is pivotal when appointing staff as Wardens for any facility. Quiet retiring Wardens who are too timid to speak aloud and issue instructions to occupants within a facility during times of need are of little or no value to an effective emergency management system.