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For the past couple of years now, my company has been doing occasional fire alarm testing that they have instructed us to ignore. At a couple points, they were testing frequently - maybe twice a week for several weeks.

Around the time they were doing the frequent systems testing, we had an actual fire alarm go off (this is not uncommon. We are in a building with manufacturing and have something trip the alarm maybe 2 times a year), but everyone was so used to ignoring them, that probably 80% of people remained seated and it took about 5 minutes to convince people to leave the building.

Ignoring my opinion that these ignored fire alarm tests reinforce dangerous behavior, is this an OSHA issue? My company's campus here has about 7000 workers, with some buildings containing 1000+ people.

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    What is the point of testing an alarm which employees have been instructed to ignore? Jun 29 at 2:02
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    Where I worked, whenever there was a test, there was a warning message over the loudspeaker immediately preceding the test. I'm guessing there is no loudspeaker that can be used for this purpose? Jun 29 at 2:23
  • 10
    Did the company explicitly ask you to remain in your seats (and, if so, is this for all fire alarms or just for specific ones you're explicitly told about in advance) or do people simply ignore the alarms? The title of your question says the former, but the body says the latter. There's a huge difference between telling people to do things that may endanger their lives and those people choosing to do so of their own free will. Jun 29 at 9:32
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    @BernhardBarker They will post signs and sometimes send emails telling us about the test. People ignored the real one because they assumed they just missed the communication. Often the flyers posted for a test will remain up for days or weeks after it is completed, so we tend to stop noticing the flyers.
    – BlackThorn
    Jun 29 at 15:12
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    Could anybody explain what alarm system could possibly have a need for testing as often as weekly? I'd expect a critical alarm system to be designed in a way that it could be left unmaintained for a decade or so with <1% failure risk. Then you test it twice a year to have still a huge safety margin. A system that needs weekly testing, I would have a hard time trusting at all. Jun 30 at 17:38
203

Report this to your local fire marshal and let them handle it.

As for the false alarms, unless your company is explicitly warning you before each test with specific date and time of the test, I would treat any fire alarm as a real emergency and leave the building until the all clear is given.

If your company has issue with you protecting your life, I would look for a new company to work for.

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    explicitly warning you before each test with specific date and time of the test - This is the best solution to this problem. "We're testing the alarm today at 10:00am" not just "We're doing frequent fire alarm testing this month". A follow-up message that the testing is done would be even better.
    – BSMP
    Jun 28 at 21:06
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    @BSMP The situation is still ambiguous. Just because a fire alarm was announced for 10:00 a.m. does not establish as an iron-clad, unassailable fact that an alarm heard at 10:00 is just a test.
    – Kaz
    Jun 29 at 1:17
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    @Kaz No, but the odds are extraordinarily low compared to "some time this month" Jun 29 at 2:08
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    My last several employers had alarm systems that played a recorded "we are about to test the alarm" announcement about 30 seconds before the test started, and another "the test is now complete" announcement afterwards. I believe this is required for new alarm systems in buildings over a certain size. Letting you know when the test is over is really more important than letting you know when it starts.
    – bta
    Jun 29 at 2:50
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    @YanickSalzmann Depends on why they're testing the alarm. If they're testing it because they're working on the alarm system then that's different from a "fire drill" to test if people respond appropriately when they hear the alarm. Jun 29 at 10:55
43

There are two kinds of fire alarm tests: those that test the people and their response, and those that test the alarm installation itself.

The tests for the people specifically require the people to treat it as a real fire alarm, whether they know in advance that it's a drill or not.

The tests for the actual installation, however, do not require the people to respond. It is perfectly reasonable for the company to announce that a fire alarm will be intentionally sounded and should be ignored by the people, when the aim of sounding the alarm is to test the alarm installation itself. There is no hard line on how frequent you may or may not conduct these tests.

However, the frequent nature of these installation tests have clearly now damaged the people's behavior when they hear an alarm that was not announced to be a drill.

This is a major problem, as you have discovered. However, this being a major problem is not the same as concluding that the company shouldn't have run these frequent installation tests. It's not unreasonable to test important installations at least weekly.

Rather than avoid running installation tests, the company should address the issue of people not responding to alarms that were not pre-emptively warned about. This can take many forms.

  • Maybe the people simply need a reminder.
  • Maybe the company puts up an official notice board for planned tests which people can check when in doubt.
  • Maybe the company needs to run more fire drills (i.e. "people tests") to drill the correct behavior into the people.
  • Maybe the company uses a fixed testing schedule that people can get used to, to differentiate the tests from the real alarms.

This is not something I can answer without knowing your company's context. I would address this concern with the company, and if their response is unsatisfactory, consider contacting the fire marshall and letting them approach the company about this issue.

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    This. One place I worked, we joked that a fire on Wednesday at 10am would kill us all. (In practice the fire alarm would have sounded a lot longer than the regular test). For an alarm system test there is no need to evacuate. Jun 29 at 11:47
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    I'd also add that tests of the installation should, if possible, be scheduled to occur outside of regular working hours. If it's like most offices and people are mostly only there between 8AM and 6PM or so, schedule alarm tests early in the morning or late in the evening when the office is mostly empty. This has the added benefit that you're not losing an hour or so of work from the entire staff, disrupting meetings, interrupting workflow, etc. Jun 29 at 13:51
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    Equipment tests should use a different alarm sound. The link between the alarm sound and leaving the building needs to be unconditional, so people do not waste time in finding out whether the alarm is real, and therefore, the alarm overrides managerial authority. Same thing as in airplanes, really: if the collision avoidance system tells you to descend and the controller tells you to climb, you descend and then inform the controller that their decision was overridden. Jun 29 at 15:36
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    @SimonRichter: Using a different alarm sound poses a risk. It's another component to fail (e.g. playing the wrong siren) and it doesn't truly test the alarm system. On the whole, the importance of true testing outweighs the effort in sending a mail to employees about the test. Your airplane situation is not comparable, as you're dealing with different sources of information and how to prioritize between them, as opposed to getting different information from a single system (which is what a different siren for tests would be).
    – Flater
    Jun 29 at 16:13
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    @SimonRichter "We won't get up unless we hear an alarm, no matter what's happening" and "Even though there is an alarm, we know nothing is happening" are polar opposites. An issue with one does not imply an issue with the other. You're inverting the conclusion.
    – Flater
    Jun 29 at 22:13
8

Where I work a fire alarm test occurs at 10:30 on Friday. We just listen for the minute and take no action.

Other times we treat it as the real deal. In fact the firemen get called out automatically.

Why cannot your company do this?

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    Great plan. Until you all die when a fire starts at 10:30 on Friday
    – Kevin
    Jun 28 at 20:49
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    Also the fire alarm is for 30 secs. Any longer we are out of there,
    – Ed Heal
    Jun 28 at 20:54
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    @Kevin: Every two months, on the second Tuesday at 14:00, our country sounds the national alarms for 30 seconds - the kind of alarms that are used for nationwide catastrophies or incoming missiles. The benefit of testing these alarms and making people aware of what they sound like very much outweigh the unlikely timing of an event at during one of those six yearly 30-second intervals - for an event that would make a significant change if people responded 30 seconds earlier than they otherwise would. Similarly, frequent alarm installation tests carry more benefits than drawbacks.
    – Flater
    Jun 29 at 0:51
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    @Flater, so what you're saying is that if I am an enemy of your country, and I wish for my missiles to inflict the greatest possible loss of life; then the best time to attack would be on the second Tuesday of the month, at say 13:59? I don't think you were supposed to make that information public. Jun 29 at 4:51
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    @DawoodibnKareem It seems unlikely that information that's known to a whole country could be seen as "private" to that country ;) ... Jun 29 at 7:03
8

If the fire alarm tests cannot be completely scheduled, e.g., there is ongoing work that might at any time activate the alarm, then ask your company to establish a fire watch during such work. Security officers walk around the floor inspecting for signs of fire. The fire watch has the authority to evacuate the building immediately. When fire watch is on, employees can ignore the alarm. Inform all employees by email and via managers/supervisors about scheduled tests and fire watch protocols.

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    We had something similar some years ago – the fire alarm system was buggy and did go off randomly once or twice a week, so finally the company had some security company come as fire guard, while the alarm system was debugged (with switched off alarms). This resolved the problem in some days. Jun 29 at 21:55
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We had a similar issue back at ExJob...in the building we worked in, we had "non-panic" inducing fire alarm where there would be an announcement, the lights would flash, a low-pitched alarm would go off, and the current floor, the floor above and the floor below would be evacuated.

This system always generated confusion. The day it was a real alarm, one person, who was profoundly deaf (they did have hearing aids but didn't have them in at the time), didn't hear the announcement or the alarm, so we had to go to their desk and let them know the alarms were going off, and we had to go outside. We moved to a new building soon after but not with the same system - the alarms were distinctive and loud enough that if they went off, you had to leave.

I think the employees should have a serious re-education on fire alarms first before OSHA gets involved. If you have a safety officer there, they should be telling the employees what the difference is between testing, a drill and a real alarm. If the employees are doing their due diligence, but managers are telling them to stay put, then it's an OSHA issue.

EDIT: BSMP made a great comment below re: the deaf person who we had to tell to leave as the fire alarms were going off...if I remember correctly, this incident wasn't reported to OSHA, but was roundly reported by several people to the safety officer, who then told all of us in a meeting that if the alarms did go off again to go to this employee's desk and tell them the alarm was going off. That person ended up retiring six months later, and when we moved to the new building across the way, the alarm system was designed to alert people immediately and actively - i.e. it was loud and unavoidable.

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    The day it was a real alarm, one person, who was profoundly deaf, didn't hear the announcement or the alarm, so we had to go to her desk and let them know they had to go outside. OK, now THAT might have been an OSHA violation. There is a standard requiring that the alarm can be perceived by employees.
    – BSMP
    Jun 29 at 17:36
  • @BSMP: 100% agree. I've added an edit in my original post
    – bjcolby15
    Jun 30 at 16:46
-7

When your company does repeated fire alarm tests (like someone is working on the alarm system and obviously you have to test that the alarm system itself works), it would be an idea to use some different alarm sound. So you stay where you are while the engineers fix the alarm system.

And when the work is finished do a real fire alarm test to check that the real alarm sound works, and that everyone leaves the building.

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    Re-wiring the fire alarm systems so that it makes a different noise when testing would be a horrible thing to do as it compromises a system that everybody has an expectation of how it should operate. In the worst case scenario the system is left configured with the "test" sound and a real fire alarm occurs. That would be a huge liability issue.
    – Peter M
    Jun 28 at 17:37

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