The System That Cried Wolf: When to Believe the Fire Alarm

by Mike Lehner, P.E.

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

One of Aesop’s famous fables is “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” If you recall, the story tells of a young shepherd boy who cried out that a wolf was chasing the village sheep, and the villagers came running to help him, only to find that there was no wolf. They had been fooled. When a wolf really did come and chased off the sheep, no one believed the shepherd because he had lied before. The villagers had disrupted their day to respond to multiple false alarms and would not be fooled again.

The moral of the story is, “Don’t lie, or no one will believe you when you’re telling the truth.” But let’s not forget: the villagers lost all their sheep because they didn’t heed the warning. Had they chosen to listen to the shepherd boy, even at risk of being fooled again, everyone would still have their sheep.

Why Do False Alarms Happen?

Fire alarm systems have developed a “boy who cried wolf” reputation; while the system doesn’t “lie,” per se, there are often many false alarms. A small portion of these are intentional, in the form of tests/drills and even some malicious behavior, but most are unintentional and the result of system failures. Failures result from simple things like excessive dirt in a smoke detector due to improper maintenance setting off a smoke alarm; issues with related systems, like water hammer in the water system feeding the sprinkler risers causing sprinkler waterflows; or something in the controls, like a system panel malfunction. A building fire alarm panel has many built-in redundancies, but is still susceptible to maintenance issues. Programming, installation, and proper maintenance issues can cause excessive false alarms.

Like Aesop’s shepherd boy learned, excessive false alarms lead to ineffective response by the hardest element of the system to control – human beings. We have alarm systems so that people can take action to escape or mitigate dangers that threaten lives and property. Knowing how to properly respond to an alarm and successfully taking the proper action is what make alarm systems effective. If no one heeds the alarm, threats become that much more dangerous

Fire Alarm Horror Stories

Take, for example, the First Interstate Bank fire in 1988, which was one of the worst fires in the City of Los Angeles’s history. Many unfortunate events came together and made this a tragic fire event, but ignoring alarms exacerbated the issue.

Due to construction, the fire pumps on this high-rise building were shut down in the evening. Several fire alarms occurred, but all were reset by the security personnel. A maintenance worker took the service elevator to the floor where the alarms were occurring, and died when the doors opened to the floor on fire. It was nearly 20 minutes from when the first fire alarm went off before the fire department was finally notified, by people outside of the building who saw the flames and called the fire department. Once the LAFD got on the scene, they fought the fire for nearly four hours to get it under control.

The Danger of the “It Won’t Happen to Me” Mentality

Stories like this one are hard to hear, particularly when you think about, “What if they’d done this?” or “If only they’d done that.” It puts in sharp perspective what we’re supposed to do, but how much do we really change our behavior? We’ve all had that experience where the fire alarm horns and strobes are going off, but we see no flames or smoke. And in some cases, some people decide to ignore the alarm. It’s okay to admit it; you’re not alone. In fact, my colleague and one of our office deputy floor wardens, Paul Greenwalt, has his own recent story:

“It was a crisp morning in October when the fire alarm system in our new office tower in Bellevue was being tested. The building engineer and fire alarm personnel were on site and running the system through its paces. Notkin Wood Harbinger Alliance, being on the 10th floor, was part of the 3rd test group of floors to be evacuated. As part of the protocol, we moved down four floors via the stairwells. Our Floor Warden and Deputies (the folks in our office who take charge during an alarm, of which I am one) provided direction for those of our colleagues that were cooperative, and motivation for those that were reluctant.

The drill went smoothly, and we were released back to our floor after a few minutes. As employees settled back in to their normal routine, some asked questions about the correct protocol for responding to an alarm, and offered suggestions for where things might be done differently. The Floor Warden and deputies debriefed after the drill to discuss comments from co-workers and our own observations and to strategize on how to handle the situation next time. We agreed that it went well and that there were a few areas where improvements could be made.

The day continued with business as usual. I had a major deadline and was working late to make up for the time lost to the drill. There were several others here late who also had project deadlines. Around 6:00 pm there was a somewhat vague announcement over the mass notification system that alerted our floor of an issue and to evacuate the floor. Myself and one other co-worker on our side of the office looked at each other, both thinking, “This can’t be real. They were doing testing this morning, so it must be an extension of that.” Well, my co-worker decided that he was finished with his project, so packed up to leave. I needed to save a few things and print some documents, so I did that while also packing up to leave.

Eventually, we made our way over to the stairwell, thinking that maybe the elevators wouldn’t be operating. We arrived at the building lobby to discover that several other co-workers had evacuated from the other side of our office. I accounted for all persons and dismissed those that wanted to leave for home. I called the building management company to report in and get a status on the alarm. They said that someone was in route and that they would inform me of the problem when they knew more.

I made contact with the facilities person when I saw him duck around the corner heading for the service elevator. He said he didn’t know what the issue was, but that he was investigating it. Eventually the alarm ceased, and the elevators returned to normal operation. We got the all clear and those that needed to headed back to work, while I left for home.

Our building is new, with multiple ongoing tenant improvements happening. Turns out, there was a lighting relay on the 12th floor that caught fire and set off the alarm.

This “false alarm” was actually a real event. I had taken the time to carefully print and save documents, while taking my life into my own hands. My co-worker, who had waited for me rather than leave me behind, was at the mercy of my defiance. Moral of the story: take every alarm seriously!”

Paul recounted his experience at our office’s life safety training seminar. It had the intended effect of reminding us all that potential disaster can happen anywhere, to anyone.

What To Do When A Fire Alarm Goes Off

Emergency preparedness is something that many take for granted and, despite how often it may feel like we have fire drills, we really don’t practice enough. When a major event does happen, panic and fear can render even the most level-headed individuals powerless. For example, one thing Paul noticed after our fire alarm testing day was that no two people recalled the mass notification message the same. Being distracted and not paying attention is a symptom of acute stress. Managing that stress becomes easier with practice. As they say in sports, you play like you practice, so practicing proper response to fire alarms will help people react appropriately and recall more accurately. At the very least, there will be less confusion as to where to go, which leads to more effective evacuation.

Building codes require fire detection and alarm systems as well as mass notification systems in high-occupancy buildings. The fire marshal requires that all buildings (aside from single family residential homes) have a defined evacuation route that must be posted so that all occupants know where to go, as well as have policies and procedures for what to do in the event of an alarm, and different types of life safety scenarios. In some cases, people may not hear or understand the fire alarm. Fortunately, new fire alarm systems include strobe lights to assist the hearing impaired as well. Many buildings also have mass notification systems which utilize speakers so fire personnel can broadcast instructions to various groups within the building. In a high rise, some people may be instructed to shelter in place, while others move to a different floor. With speakers, they are placed more frequently throughout the space to reduce intelligibility issues. Nobody likes the muffled drive-through window speaker, and that is of no use during an emergency!

These methods exist and are enforced to help save lives and property. While we can’t plan for every dangerous scenario we might encounter, having some sense of plan and order can go a long way.

If the building where you live or work has numerous false alarms, this could be a sign of poor maintenance or configuration that needs attention by the building owner. If you notice lots of alarms, speak up! It might just help building maintenance personnel find a problem before a potential system failure causes a real issue!

Moral of this Story: Better Safe than Sorry!

So, should you believe it when the fire alarm goes off?


While they can be annoying, always treat each fire alarm as the real thing.  It’s your responsibility to pay attention to instructions (if given) or at least proceed to the nearest exit.  The worst thing that happens with a false alarm is a minor inconvenience – verses the tragic alternative if you ignore it.

Our faithful fire departments always treat each fire alarm call as a real call, since they never know for sure until they arrive on the scene. While that can amount to some inefficiencies, it ensures that they are ready when the real thing happens. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

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