Public address and voice alarm systems: addressing poor response to alarms

During an experiment to test whether people recognised the sound of a fire alarm, disturbingly, only six per cent of people were able to do so. A building can have the most technologically sophisticated and up-to-date system available, but this accounts for nothing if the people inside do not respond. Research has shown that live voice messages in an emergency are more likely to be perceived as credible and offer benefits over alarm systems.

Why do humans respond poorly to fire alarms?

The RRO and Fire Safety Act 2021 attempts to fix confusing and historically inadequate legislation; however, regulation alone cannot address the decisions each individual makes in the event of a fire. 

Poor response time means people are putting their lives at risk. But why are they not responding to—and sometimes completely ignoring—alerts that are designed to save their lives? 

The answer involves several factors dependent on variables including the level of education and sex. Here are a few of the most important ones: 

  • Not recognising the alarm (e.g. believing a “real” fire alarm would sound different) 
  • Hearing the alarm, but thinking it is a false alarm
  • Prioritising the activity they are doing overtaking the alarm seriously
  • Having a low perceived risk of the situation

Standardising alarms could be a solution to several of these issues, but this would involve vast sums of money and training for everyone involved—which is both impractical and impossible. 

While there is no panacea to guarantee fire safety, you can implement the best solution for your building. And this could include a public address voice alert system. Talking to a fire safety specialist is paramount to ensure the people in your building are as safe as they can be. 

TALK TO A FIRE & EVACUATION EXPERT

What is a public address voice alert system?

A public address and voice alert system allows a building to be evacuated safely in the event of an emergency. The Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) can use the system to give inhabitants or workers in a high-rise building clear instructions about how they will be evacuated. A good voice alert system should be:

  • Intelligent: Sophisticated technology should allow intelligent control of the whole system 
  • Flexible: Easy to install, configure, and expand when necessary
  • Intuitive: A variety of programming options provide complete fire safety

Why use a public address voice alert system?

Public address voice alert systems can be used to send pre-recorded messages that are designed to change based on the activation of different detectors. 

However, they are far more effective when a live message is sent by the FSR. Research shows that if people are presented with information from an official source, they are far more likely to respond than from a generic pre-recorded message. 

Live messages can provide people trapped inside buildings on fire with updated information from the FSR. These messages will also naturally be delivered conveying an appropriate sense of emergency, using:

  • Faster speech rate
  • Higher pitch
  • Keywords that can trigger an immediate response

How can public address voice alert systems help with safer evacuations?

People’s behaviour when a fire alarm sounds are largely dependent on their environment. This means they often try to leave a building the way they entered it, which may be the opposite of what they should do. Public address voice alert systems can be used to guide people to the safest exit. 

These systems are also potentially life-saving during a vertical phased evacuation in a high-rise building. For example, if there is a fire on the 12th floor of a block of flats, the FRS may decide to first evacuate that floor, followed by the floors directly above and below. The rest of the building will then be evacuated last. 

This procedure is designed to avoid the risk of everyone simultaneously evacuating, causing panic and injury. But it only works if the FSR can communicate with each floor and give precise instructions. 

What is the current legislation on public address voice alert systems?

As part of the RRO and Fire Safety Act 2021, the vast majority of residential and commercial buildings are legally required to have a fire emergency evaluation plan detailing the specific course of action in the event of an emergency. The government also has the power to introduce secondary legislation whenever they deem necessary. This means that the legislation is constantly evolving. 

Currently, regulations do not require high-rise buildings to have public address voice alert systems. However, it is highly likely that the government will introduce further legislation requiring certain buildings to install a voice alert system. 

Additionally, BS 8629:2019 is the code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of evacuation alert systems (EAS) in high-rise buildings. The code only currently requires a system to be used that triggers evacuation alerts. However, once again, advice is rapidly evolving to adhere to the recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

In certain circumstances, voice-controlled systems are superior to fire alarms. BS5839-8: 2013 endorses voice alert systems for all public buildings and multi-storey buildings over four floors as these systems: 

“Help to protect the safety of building occupants in an emergency by verbalising useful information about the nature of the hazard or the safest and nearest escape route.”

Personalised communication is particularly important in large, vulnerable, or complex buildings where some occupants may be unfamiliar with emergency procedures and exit points. These could include: 

  • Shopping centres
  • Transport hubs
  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Offices 

The future of public address voice alert solutions

The lack of explicit regulation is possibly tied to the old ‘stay put’ policy, which did not require people to evacuate a building. This order, however, has been challenged by Grenfell and is being severely criticised by the London Fire Commissioner. 

It is, therefore, reasonable to believe that having an effective means of communication to occupants is a vital aspect of a mass evacuation. UK legislation mandating public address voice alert solutions would bring the UK in line with other countries and areas such as:

  • Scandinavian countries: Voice alarm is a legal requirement for most places of public occupation, such as schools, supermarkets, and public buildings. 
  • Germany: Voice alarm systems required in supermarkets measuring 1500sqm or more.
  • Turkey (and the Middle East): Voice alarm systems are required under civil regulations for certain building types. 
  • Dubai: Voice alarm systems are required in high-rise buildings, and this includes mixed-use buildings with a residential element.

Many organisations and institutions see the benefits of voice alert systems and safer regulations in other countries. These include The Institute of Sound, Communications & Visual Engineers, which is currently lobbying the government to implement voice systems in the following ten spaces:

  1. Retail, commercial, or exhibition buildings: 
    1. a) single-storey with an area of over 3000m2  
    2. b) multi-storey, with an area exceeding 1500 m2
  2. High-rise office buildings of 6 stories or more or designed for occupancy by more than 500 people
  3. Entertainment and sports facilities with more than 1500 seats
  4. Cinemas and theatres with more than 600 seats
  5. Hospitals and health facilities with more than 200 beds in the building
  6. High-rise public buildings of 6 storeys or more
  7. High-rise collective residential buildings and hotels with more than 200 beds or with 6 storeys or more
  8. Metro and underground rail stations in accordance with Section 12 definition
  9. Stations and ports, intended to hold more than 500 people or DfT classified grades A-C
  10. Airports, intended to hold more than 500 people

Conclusion 

Current compliance does not mandate fitting public address voice alert systems. However, more stringent legislation is highly likely to become law in the future. 

Regardless of current compliance, progressive and forward-thinking building managers and owners have an opportunity to provide their residents with safer fire protection measures.

Understanding the RRO and Fire Safety Act 2021 is the place to start. But every building is different and has unique requirements. A bespoke plan for your building assessing whether public address voice alert systems could improve fire safety will potentially save lives.

TALK TO A FIRE & EVACUATION EXPERT

 

Fire Protection & Life Safety

 

         
Kevin Burraway
Written by Kevin Burraway

Kevin is a fire protection and fire suppression specialist and Director of Ace Fire & Security.

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