So last night the fire alarm went off during the NBC Nightly News. Brian Williams, the anchor, was the perfect professional as the alarms went off, barely missing a beat with his story on the bankruptcy of American Airlines. As the alarm went off the second time during the newscast, he calmly reminded viewers that they knew they were in no danger and that’s why they were no evacuating. Watching the video on YouTube, I was very impressed with the way that Mr. Williams handled it, knowing that he wasn’t in danger and how he just continued on without losing it on the air. As a former broadcasting professional, I probably would have been distracted and my voice would have sounded funny as I tried to compensate for the extra noise. That’s why I don’t anchor NBC’s Nightly News.

Since this story has been all over the place this morning, I noticed some of the comments that folks made over on Huffington Post. It’s not often that I go over to that site, I really don’t like their style of journalism over there and I can find more balanced news elsewhere. I was surprised at the number of people who said that Brian Williams set a bad example for the public by not immediately leaping up and running out of the studio with his hands failing. I say I was surprised by these comments but I guess in reality I’m really not. Some people enjoy hysterics. Mr. Williams, a former volunteer fireman, does not. Plus, as he stated during the news broadcast, they knew they were not in danger because they were testing the fire alarm system.

I got to thinking about this a little bit on the drive into work. I have been in several places over recent years where the fire alarm has started blaring in a public space, for example, the local mall. No one flinched, no one looked for an exit, everyone continued shopping as if nothing was going on. Blaring klaxons, flashing strobe lights, automatic closing doors; all of these were ignored because people were on a mission, they were shopping, they didn’t see flames so they continued on. I must admit that I did the same. Like much of the American public, I think I have been desensitized to these alarms because the damn things ring a false alarm on so many occasions.

Earl and I made a trip to Wisconsin a few years back and on each of the first three nights of this five night trip we had to evacuate the hotel (which was a different hotel each time) because the fire alarms were going off for no reason. People get used to these things. The blaring sounds, the strobe lights, they’re all for naught when they cry wolf so many times. I remember fire drills back during my school days. Those bells never rang unless they meant business (a fire or a drill). We didn’t have flashing strobe lights or slamming doors or announcements coming over a speaker, the fire bell simply went clang clang clang clang clang (pause) (repeat). It was rare that you heard that clang but when you did you got your butt out of the school in an orderly fashion. The same goes with the Emergency Broadcast System. If the old-style two-tone alarm wasn’t proceeded by “This is a test…”, then you figured that the local nuclear plant was melting down and you got under your desk and covered your neck to ride it out. People made sure that these alarms didn’t ring for no reason. False alarms were avoided. It’s not until we upgraded to the latest and greatest technology that we started to tolerate false alarms. Because we put up with bugs in our computer programs and crappy, tinny sounding phone calls over a our cell phones, we expect mediocrity from the devices that are designed to save our lives because they “cry wolf” more than anything else.

Now I know that I’m somewhat contradicting myself in this post. I praise Brian Williams for keeping his cool and continuing on while the fire alarm blared and I make fun of the people that say he should have evacuated immediately while on the other hand I scold folks for not leaving when the mall fire alarm went off. This is all a product of our conditioning. We are being conditioned to stock up on milk and bread and flail our hands in the air when an alarm is needlessly fired off to warn us of a “winter storm” (when much less than a foot of snow is expected) and on the other hand, we hear so many false fire alarms in public spaces today due to poorly manufactured and executed equipment that we just ignore the damn things. How do we turn this around? No clue. I’m hoping that the fabled reboot of civilization at the end of next year will give us some answers.

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