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Verbal Command

Jul 31 2019

By Richard Warburton

A verbal command system could offer a viable alternative to the standard fire evacuation alarm.

In the incredibly hot summer of 2018, I was staying in a hotel in Whitby with two friends.  At around 4am I was roused by a loud repeating noise.  After a few moments my mind had cleared sufficiently (although still slightly hampered by the previous evenings festivities) to realise that this was probably the fire alarm and I was in a potentially life-threatening situation. 

I sprang into action, dressing quickly (no socks), slipped on my trainers and evacuated down the fire escape.  When I reached the fire assembly point I found one of my friends, but the other was notably absent; we waited for confirmation that it was (as expected) a false alarm and returned to our rooms. 

At breakfast our absent friend was intrigued to hear of our early morning adventures and stated that he had heard a noise somewhere but it ‘didn’t sound like a fire alarm’, and ‘there were no other guests evacuating, or Fire Wardens knocking on doors’. This sounded all too familiar.

Human Behaviour

Between 2015 and 2016 I completed a Masters Degree in Occupational Safety, Health and Environment.  My Dissertation explored the topic ‘Human behaviour in fire’.  I had become interested in the subject after reading about a spate of small-scale fires on University campuses, notably the Bristol University campus fire in 2015

During my research I investigated the most notable fires of the 20th and early 21st century; among them were: Woolworths Manchester Store Fire, The Bradford Football Stadium Fire, Kings Cross Station and the World Trade Centre evacuations of 1993 and 2001; the latter being the largest full-scale evacuation in the West.

All these tragedies contain different circumstances, but a common thread underpinned them all, and that is ‘ineffective communication’ leading to occupants making poor decisions, leading to fatal consequences.

Various studies by researchers have suggested that there are four stages to a fire evacuation, these are:

  • Pre-Movement
  • Interpretation
  • Preparation
  • Action.

The Pre-Movement stage is the activity the person may be involved in at the time, for example buying a meal or participating in a meeting.

Interpretation deals with factors that influence the decision that the person makes for example roles and responsibilities. 

Preparation and Action involve characteristics such as instruction, exploration and waiting/withdrawal. 

Many people will make decisions during these final stages such as gathering belongings or searching for co-workers or loves ones. Effective and clear information is the key to helping the person make crucial decisions and the ‘verbal command’ is an effective tool.

Just another drill

How many times have you heard an alarm and thought it’s probably a false alarm? Researchers call this ‘Normalcy Bias’, an example of this is growing up hearing the same sounding alarm activating in different situations over the course of a lifetime and becoming de-sensitised to danger.   Although verbal command systems have been used in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK, the audible beeping alarm is still the industry standard.

I decided to investigate alternative communication methods.  It has been suggested by researchers, that verbal commands would be more effective than the normal audible beeping alarms and that people will tend to respond immediately to a verbal command to leave a building played over a tannoy or speaker system; whereas audible alarms have a delayed affect in motivating occupants to evacuate.  

The research I carried out found that 77% of questionnaire participants agreed that they would be more inclined to react to a verbal command system rather than the current audible beeping alarm.


Of course, there are various factors that need to be considered if a verbal command over a public address system is to be used:

  • the type of building and differences in the building’s occupants, for example, those with auditory deficiencies and the elderly, or those who may be sleeping.
  • Language barriers that may be prevalent through cultural diversity must also be considered to ensure there is no room for misinterpretation;
  • and the verbal command to evacuate must be as clear as possible. The acoustics of the building and local environmental noise must also be considered.

Saving lives

Despite major advances in Human behaviour studies, fires are still occurring on a daily basis across the globe.  It is clear that people are still struggling to interpret information received, which in turn prevents them from making effective life-saving decisions.

It is hoped that the verbal command is adopted as the preferred method of clear communication during a fire emergency; and that rapid advances in the study of human behaviour in fire will eventually lead to a world where fire fatalities become a rare occurrence rather than a daily one.

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