People are bad at identifying invisible threats

Note last edited April 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic made me realize once more that people are genuinely bad at identifying the risk of invisible threats.

Workplace fire alarm

Case in point: a fire alarm.

A few years ago at a former workplace, the fire alarm went off. It had falsely gone off a few times before, so I was unsure whether this was genuine. I was figuring that out when four fire trucks pulled up outside, along with the police. Yes, this was a genuine fire alarm!

I stood up and told everyone to evacuate the building. I went to other rooms to get everyone to leave. But in the end, only a dozen out of 100–150 people evacuated the building.

While waiting outside, a coworker broadcasted a Slack message, in ALL CAPS, requesting the fire alarm to be turned off because they couldn’t work like this (sales, which needed to be on the phone).

The police explicitly prohibited us from going back inside. They needed to confirm that the fire hazard was resolved. Someone in our small group said they knew of a secret back entrance to the office, and a bunch of coworkers followed them back inside.

In the end, out of 100–150 employees, only 4 or 5 properly evacuated the building and stayed outside while the threat was still present. Luckily for everyone, it turned out there was no fire, but the alarm was real.

Note last edited April 2021.