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Was BP Explosion (& Other Recent Accidents) The Result Of “Alarm Fatigue”?

August 1st, 2010 · 3 Comments

In today’s New York Times, there’s an interesting article by Matthew Wald that raises the question whether “alarm fatigue” has led to major accidents, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon incident.

According to the piece, “For No Signs of Trouble, Kill the Alarm,”:

When an oil worker told investigators on July 23 that an alarm to warn of explosive gas on the Transocean rig in the Gulf of Mexico had been intentionally disabled months before, it struck many people as reckless.

Reckless, maybe, but not unusual. On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board said that a crash last year on the Washington subway system that killed nine people had happened partly because train dispatchers had been ignoring 9,000 alarms per week. Air traffic controllers, nuclear plant operators, nurses in intensive-care units and others do the same.

Mark R. Rosekind, a psychologist who is a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the cases had something in common. “The volume of alarms desensitizes people,” he said. “They learn to ignore them.”

James P. Keller Jr., vice president of the ECRI Institute, formerly the Emergency Care Research Institute, has a name for it: “alarm fatigue.” In a recent Web seminar for health care professionals, he asked participants if their hospital colleagues had become desensitized to any important alarms in the last two years. Three-quarters said yes. “This suggests it’s a pretty pervasive problem,” he said.

The article focuses on the impact of “alarm fatigue” on industry workers. However, I think it is also relevant to how alarms, warnings and alerts are communicated to the broader public. The full piece can be found here.

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Tags: Emergency Alerts

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Roberto // Aug 1, 2010 at 10:03 am

    The continual broadcast of orange/red/fuchsia threat levels during the Bush-Cheney years certainly made a mockery of public safety warnings. I’d be interested to know how many days during that administration (and since) there has been a green (or whatever the appropriate color is) “threat” level.

    And yet, hundreds of millions of Americans walked their dogs, commuted to and from work, shopped for groceries, etc., with no visceral evidence at all that they were “under threat”. Kansas City is not Kabul. Minneapolis is not Mogadishu. Bayonne is not Baghdad.

    Look both ways before crossing the street. Wear a hat in the sun. Quit smoking. Don’t drink and drive. Have a prostate exam/mammography.

  • 2 Bruce Curley // Aug 1, 2010 at 10:53 am

    What’s your point? Your ideology trumps fact?

    The underwear and shoe bombers never happened? Dozens of American muslims have not been involved in plot after plot to kill Americans? All those thousands of jihadi websites here and abroad are lying when they state how and when they will kill us? The well-funded Wahabi imams do not preach death to the Jews and Americans each Friday…both here and overseas?

    You’re mentality failed horribly in the 90s when Clinton ignored all the American citizens killed by AQ overseas. Your ideological blinders led to what happened at Ground Zero.

    Hopefully, others who want Americans to live believe the jihadi’s at their word and take measures to roll them back…like Bush did.

  • 3 Bruce Curley // Aug 1, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Or…as the Washington Post put it on page A7 on Sunday, August 1, 2010:

    “Attack plots against the United States have proliferated and grown more diverse. Over the past 18 months, the federal government has charged 34 U.S. citizens with direct involvement in terrorism. The Fort Hood, Tex., shooting in November, the May 1 Times Square car bombing attempt, and last year’s New York subway plot were each allegedly carried out by Americans inspired from or trained abroad.”

    It is no mistake the sharia imam in NY named his new American conquest “Cordoba.” Even with all your sneering, they have stated clearly you, too, will live under sharia law. Pay attention to their actions and their words. Or ignore them. They will not change their plans either way.

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