Alarms and Diversions

I had an unpleasant experience on Friday. They were testing the fire systems in the lab where I work, and that meant that at random points during the morning, the alarms would blare out – once, while I was working directly under an alarm, which was an interesting experience as you feel the soundwaves physically – and lights would flash. We’d been told this was going to happen, and that we did not need to evacuate during the process, but as I commented to a colleague, they hadn’t said we *couldn’t* leave the building. We wound up all putting in earbuds, then an engineer went through passing out the lil’ sponge rubber ear plugs, which helped – but didn’t entirely reduce the unpleasantness of the noise, not to mention the bright flashes from the alarm lights.


While this was going on, I was charting, and managed to miss signing off on a time on one of them. While reviewing them later, I realized it, and realized that I’d missed it because of the alarm. We do funny things when we’re under duress, we humans, and it’s something to contemplate about when I’m writing. This was not a life-or-death situation – it was a known alarm, but it still made me jump about a foot when it went off – and the charts merely record temperatures, and the time I removed this one can be deduced by looking at the time I installed it’s replacement.


However, it’s a great way to introduce uncertainty, jangled nerves, and missed connections into a story. Imagine a spaceship where you couldn’t escape the alarms, and they went on and on and on… people would be going mad. Hearing loss. Even after the alarms stopped, I was having tinnitus for a long time. I’ve had reviewers not like that I didn’t put a huge amount of detail into fight scenes, but I wrote those in consultation with people who had been in similar situations. The fog of war is a thing. You miss stuff around you, you’re so highly focused on what you’re doing, you can’t possibly be aware of what’s happening all the way across the battlefield. Or the space station, which is so partitioned off you couldn’t see it anyway.


While I’ve seen readers complain about smart characters making stupid mistakes while under duress, the reality is that when you can’t think straight because there’s a screeching that rattles your bones, you can make mistakes. There’s a reason the military drills in skills over and over and over – so you can do what you’re supposed to do, even when the brain is over there in the corner gibbering. Something deep down takes over and you do it. I’ve never personally been in combat. I was, however, trained in first responder skills, and when I reached motherhood, there were a few situations that came up where I had to be calm in the face of potential tragedies. To have panicked wouldn’t have helped, and it would have frightened the children. So I know, a tiny bit, what it feels like to operate on that other level.

As a plot device, this can be a handy way to get your protagonist in a lot of trouble. Pile on the alarms and diversions until he doesn’t know which way is up, and you can fit in plot twists that would work as amusement park rides!


  1. There’s also the complimentary issue of becoming habituated to danger signs by repeated exposure. I am charge of testing fire alarms at my campus, and we test each building once a month (on the first Friday of the month) test every single device in the system once a year, and have two “random” (in theory the students don’t know when they happen, but since the RAs are told, the students find out well before the test occurs) fire drills every semester. Plus, we average two to three false alarms from students cooking in their rooms every semester.

    The end result of all this is that when the alarms go off, everyone ignores them.The first time a new student or faculty member hears the alarms they react (generally to the amusement of the others, which hastens the process of habituation) but fairly soon the new stimulus becomes meaningless. Like someone living beside an airport or highway, they just don’t hear the noise any more.

    People who live in close proximity to danger learn to ignore it. You can’t keep panicking time after time. Californians ignore small earthquakes, even though they could be foreshocks heralding a major quake. People who live on the Gulf Coast pay little attention to the tropical storm warnings. In my area, folks along the Mississippi and Missouri confluence don’t think about getting to high ground until the water is up to their knees.

    And so when writing about a major catastrophe keep in mind that the first response of a lot of people is going to be to go on with life as usual, particularly if it’s a predictable disaster. It’s only when the effects of the event are inescapable that people will begin to react, and by then it is almost certainly too late.

    1. Only two or three false alarms per semester? I’d give my left nut if that’s all it was here. We average around 2-3 false alarms per day when school is in session, about 2-3 per week when it’s out.

      1. I still remember the night before a major freshman test when my freshman dorm got five in a night.

    2. How do you tell natives of the Midwest from other college students? They are the ones who go outside when the tornado sirens go off, so they can see if there’s really a tornado or not.

      Alternatively, they are the ones NOT huddling by the plate glass windows in the lowest floor of the dorm (Atlanta). We were back in the tunnels (dorm built into a hillside), and one of the RAs scolded us for not being with the others. I believe she got a few single-digit salutes in response.

    3. I lived in a dorm where spiders kept trying to nest in the alarms. (This was on a base in Japan some decades ago, remember) and the alarms went off so often that – just as you said – residents ignored them. I think someone eventually got onto the building manager and the fire department to fix the situation, either with spider-proofed alarms or a fumigation program – because the alarms were going off so often they were essentially useless.

  2. Oh yes, the joy of incessant alarms. It happens quite a bit at my work. Whenever there is a power fluctuation, or the alarm company (I will not reveal the Simpleminded company by name, but you may work it out for yourself) is testing alarms (which happens for two months every summer), or when there is a problem with the Simpleminded Company’s alarm panel in one of the buildings…and then there is the board of other alarms (mostly doors) that beeps whenever a door is propped, keyed open, someone is denied access…

    I’ve gotten fairly good at ignoring the incessant beeping, but that can be a problem when it’s something important like a fire alarm. There’s a reason I go home and drink some nights.

    1. Sadly, two of our buildings have been recently updated to a UUFX system which means that we can’t just ignore the beeping. The monitoring company is obligated by law to send a service tech–even when it is something (like swapping out a dirty detector) that I am fully capable of doing myself. And since they have to do it within four hours of the panel showing a supervisory alarm, if it happens late in the day I end up having to stay until the tech arrives, rather than scheduling a service call for the next day.

      But bringing up door position alarms reminds me of another issue. In theory, all of the residence floors in the dorms have card access and no one can operate the elevator or open a stairwell door to gain access to a particular floor who is not a resident.

      In practice, however, doors get propped open and locks disabled. When a system designed to protect users from an uncommon threat (assault or theft committed by a dorm non-resident) results in a common inconvenience (having to escort visitors to the floor and remember access cards when leaving the building) the system will be overcome by the regular users to eliminate the inconvenience, which generally results in eliminating the protection.

      1. Another example would be the computer systems where passwords have to be something like Xxdkf932!!94kLD4: a large number of characters that are not a word, part of a word, a common name, etc. In theory, this means that you’re system is super-secure because you aren’t vulnerable to dictionary-type hacking attacks. In practice, it means that everyone in the office has a little sticky note on the monitor with the password on it because there is no way to remember it otherwise.

        1. Actually, if it’s a frequently used password, even that is easily remembered. I use pseudorandomly – possibly randomly – generated passwords from a program I wrote using Microsoft’s cryptographic functions, and as a consequence sometimes have wild ones.

          1. For some… That I cannot do – I barely remember where I put the non-alphanumerics and which ones.

            OTOH, I generate passwords by taking a look at my bookshelf for names and words. That’s varied enough that even someone who knows me has no chance.

          2. Kevin, the problem with randomly generated long passwords is that no one can remember them… so they write them down, put them in a text file on the computer, or have the browser / Google Cloud / etc. store them . You will not stop this behavior via policy.

      2. Our biggest transgressor on doors is the Athletic dept. They just spent $35M renovating and expanding their main building on campus, but continually prop open doors. The strength coach even put a padlock on one of the overhead doors so it couldn’t secured, because his athletes “need to have access to the building at all times.” Yeah buddy, that’s why they have an ID card they can swipe to get in. If there is an actual problem with a card access door we pass it on to the Telecommunications dept to look at in the morning. We have a binder that’s about 80 pages deep and that goes back more than a year on stuff they haven’t fixed yet (major stuff that can’t wait gets fixed by the on-call-trades guys that night).

        We monitor all the alarms and cameras on campus (100+ buildings and 300+ cameras-and counting). We have Fire Alarms on 3 different systems, all but about 5 are on the Simpleminded system. Door access is on one system (thank the Lord that we finally got rid of the old system from 20 years ago). Air Handlers, Freezers, Power, etc. are on three different systems, the vast majority of which are on Simpleminded. At least all the cameras are on one system. We then also monitor a security app that students/staff/faculty can use if they feel unsafe. And two different text accounts and two different email accounts (along with our personal work email) to go along with all of the other Police dispatch and phone switchboard stuff. The one good thing is we don’t have to do EMD or answer 911 (we do monitor all 911 calls made from campus phones though).

        1. He should come into his office to find the padlock sitting on his desk, and the bill from the locksmith for removing it.

  3. “Sure, let’s make the alarms so loud and flashing that they overwhelm the people they’re trying to save. Who could possibly object?”

    “We’ll go to any lengths for your safety!”

    I have that problem with the brake lights on some modern cars; they’re so bright they’re like having red-tinted headlights in my face from a couple of car-lengths away. I sometimes wind up closing my eyes and putting a hand up to block the glare, trying to preserve some vision for when the lights go out. Because obviously, blinding anyone behind you is much safer than just alerting them you’re resting your foot on the brake pedal again…

    Back some years ago the FAA found that a couple of jumbos had gone down because various alarms didn’t go off. They hadn’t gone off because the flight crews had flipped the breakers if they could, or sabotaged the alarms if they couldn’t Because *everything* had an alarm, going off for the slightest or no reason, and the crews got tired of listening to it all.

    After the mandatory “heads must roll!” posturing, the number of alarms was reduced and their trigger points set to something approximating an actual problem, rather than slight variations from the norm.

    1. Safety signs.

      Plastering every inch gets them ignored, even if it makes the lawyers happy. There’s a shop I visit at times, and the one sign I remember now, and reread from time to time is one whose simple, clean, brutal language I appreciate.

      I don’t have any personal knowledge of safety interlocks being disabled (I’m probably just lacking in experience), but people do sometimes let those interfere with developing and maintaining safe habits. Because you will not always be working on a machine with interlocks.

      1. “WARNING: Do not look into laser with remaining eye.”

        (because no matter how many signs you put up, some bozo IS going to do it once no matter what…)


    I finally finished my book yesterday. The Demon Slayers is complete! Apparently it was something of a burden, because today I am experiencing such lightness, it is quite something.

    Now I can cut down dead poplar trees, make promised projects of wood, fix my crappy old truck, and do other stuff.

    The FIRST book now has a decent chance at being published too.

    Wow. I’ve got a bunch of work to do. ~:D

  5. Your alarm disruption has an actual MilSF application. There is a common discussion of the relative time needed to train people to fire a matchlock or flintlock vs time needed to train people to use a bow…under combat conditions. There is a sports medicine literature. Fortunately we have an SF author with an actual PhD in military history who researched the question in the period literature, not to be confused with CV Oman.

    Training people to use the bow effectively takes a couple of seasons, said people in period. The “It takes a lifetime to learn” claim is tested by the claim that typical pro basketball and football players are in their 50s. Training people to go through the 50 or so motions needed to reload and fire a matchlock, and drive it into muscle memory, as opposed to the memory needed on a firing range with a firing officer calling each move…that takes several years. That’s the period claim by in-period professionals who cared about getting the answer right.. The bow is much easier to train.

    However, good period armor stopped most arrow fire. It did not stop flintlock rounds.

  6. How I worried, in A Diabolical Bargain about whether the hero’s situation was such that readers would accept his initial stupid decision.

    (Followed by a long series of doubling down because he didn’t know how to explain why he didn’t do it earlier.)

  7. People do stupid things under stress.

    But Fiction has to make sense, while reality is under no such obligation. There are whole bunch of things I’ve actually seen that would get a book walled. This is a prime category of such divergence.

    One example: There’s a common saying in the military that a purple heart means you were smart enough to come up with a plan, stupid enough to try and execute it, and lucky enough to survive the experience.
    I learned how true that was in training. I was running a squad while our company was running patrols against each other. We caught one of the other squads eating lunch at the junction of two trails (and a registered target!) We quietly backed off, and called in a fire mission in their position.
    But when your officers are back in base camp actively conspiring against you, you shamelessly lie on your pos reps as Standard Operating Procedure.
    I couldn’t help but notice how friendly the terrain was to launching an ambush. So I took the squad up the hill, and laid them down in firing positions, complete with limiting stakes. But there was only a 25% chance they’d walk into it, whenever they finally got around to finishing lunch. So I resolved to lead them into the kill zone. I made sure everyone understood the plan, including repeating it back to me. They would man the ambush, I would lead an element of two up the trail, where we’d fire off a couple rounds, loudly break contact, and beat feet to a covered position. Thereby drawing them into the kill zone and being in a position to hit them enfilade if they tried to turn the assault up the hill into the ambush. (Good luck reaching it, but there were style points to consider.)
    So I kicked off the plan. It fell apart when I yelled “Break contact!” and the entire ambushing element got up and ran.

  8. Off topic, but I saw something written on a crate today that made me laugh out loud:


    The people around me were probably very confused. 🙂

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