Shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded blog

A fire alarm that warns people if a building i...

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One thing about these Brits – they take safety seriously. Very seriously. None of this lackadaisical happy-go-lucky well-done-you-survived sort of approach favoured back home. Oh no – they’re determined to go out of their way to ensure that no matter what happens, you’ve got a good chance of making it through the day.

The most obvious example is fire. You’d think that with all the rain the land encounters, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it is.  Because, if you consider it bit more deeply, there are a lot of old buildings, with miles of dubious wiring, and a plethora of gas pipes. Recipe for disaster, I guess. Thus, from the bowels of the Nanny State emerge all sorts of regulations about how to build fire-proof (or at least, fire casualty-proof) houses. Our place, for instance, has fire-proof doors all over the place. These have a sealing strip around the frame to make them largely airtight when closed, and they have springs installed to ensure that they remain closed all the time. Apparently it’s a requirement that if you’re renting out a house, all the doors need to do this. Which is so annoying that I’ve disabled most of the springs around the house (shhh! don’t tell anyone!).  Whereas back home, the only attempt to control this sort of thing is the occasional electrical certificate (when you sell your house) and a newspaper article every now and then mentioning the hazards of using an open paraffin cooker if your house is made largely of wood.

The reason this is coming to mind is that we had a fire drill at work today. Not the usual test of the fire alarm at 2:30 every Monday, but a real drill (at least, I think it was a drill). One gets so used to the usual Monday firing of the alarm, that my thought process went like this:

  • Check time – hmmm… 2:41
  • That’s funny – the alarm is late today
  • Heck, I’m sure it’s later in the week than Monday!
  • It can’t still be Monday, can it???
  • No – it’s Thursday. Wait – why’s the alarm still going off?
  • Better leave the building, I guess.

Now, in South Africa, the typical response to an alarm is:

  • Hmmm…. what?, or
  • Dang, that’s annoying – somebody shut it off please?

I think that during the last five years in my Cape Town office, the alarm went off about four or five times, and not once did a single person so much as twitch, never mind leave the building. So that got me thinking (and I had plenty of time to do this while standing outside in the bright sunlight (take note, ye weather pessimists!)) – what effect does this added layer of precaution have on fire statistics.

Now, fire statistics for the UK are easy to come by. For SA, not so much. I found this which puts fires at 50,000 per year, and deaths at 850. It has the UK at 500,000 fires per year, with 657 deaths. That seems overstated given the other stats (which have 385,000 fires and 443 deaths), so we’ll take it with a pinch of salt, and not use it for any doctoral research. But just look at the number of fires! Bear in mind that the population of the UK is about 61m, compared to SA of 48m. From this I gather two revealing results:

  1. The UK has a serious issue with fire. They have a lot of them, and they have good reason to be paranoically worried about it.
  2. The UK is much better than SA at preventing fire-related deaths. We lose one person every 60 fires. In the UK, it’s one for every 870!

So, perhaps all the nannying is worth it. If we did everything the UK does, we’d save almost 800 people a year. Only to lose them to car accidents, mountaineering incidents, and crime (three other areas where we’re not doing so well, I gather). There probably is a doctoral thesis in there somewhere – about the merits of leaving people at the mercy of natural selection, as opposed to using copious quantities of legalistic bubble-wrap. But I’ll leave the outcome of that for another day.


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