Something funny has been happening lately.  Perhaps not do much funny as odd.  Alarms have been going off all over the place.

Just last week I was sitting in a Second Cup having a coffee and working and an annoying fire alarm began to buzz in the cafe.  After about 30 seconds, when the cafe patrons realized that this annoyance might go on for a little while, people began to look up from their computers and portray a slight annoyance.  After a couple minutes, someone came on the intercom and said “The fire department has been notified and is on their way.  Everyone please stay calm.” That was clearly not a problem.  Barely anyone had noticed.  The alarm buzzed on.  After about five minutes, the firefighters arrived prepared to hose down the whole building.  Again no one noticed.  As it turns out, there was no fire.  After about 10 minutes the alarm was turned off and the firefighters went home.

More recently, I was on my break at work and a voice came over the intercom to tell the thousands of people in the food court that the whole atrium was being evacuated.  Not a soul moved.

We’ve all heard a car alarm go off and though “Jeez!  I wish they would shut that thing up already!”  What if someone was stealing a car?  What if the cafe was burning down?  What if my workplace really was in need of evacuation?  Surely people would die.  I know that the folks at the cafe would have to see smoke and flames before they started to close their MacBooks.  Perhaps they wouldn’t notice until the inferno effected their wi-fi connection.  Either way, there alarms are so frequent that people end up reacting in exactly the say way they would if there was no alarm at all. Perhaps they would be slightly less surprised when they smell smoke.

Obviously all of these alarms that are meant for emergencies have to be calibrated to be a whole lot  less sensitive.  If they were wrong only half the time then people would take alarms very seriously.  As long as alarms go off as frequently as they do, they will be as effective as no alarms at all, and that’s as wasteful as it is annoying.