"There is a serious danger that fire policy will be developed on the basis of work carried out in the context of the market place rather than being underpinned by research which has been subjected to full process of academic rigour and peer review" Professor D Drysdale (European Vice-Chair, International Association of Fire Safety Sciences) and D T Davis (Chair of the Executive Committee, Institution of Fire Engineers). Fire Engineers Journal 61, 10, 6-7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Dowling, D. (2002) Human Behaviour: Learned Irrelevance, www.fitting-in.com/dowling1.htm.

 

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This paper is intended to be thought provoking, provide a subject for debate and give food for thought. The interpretation and further development is the authors’ own thoughts and is not intended to reflect the view of any other organisation.

 

During the course of this short paper the theory of ‘learned irrelevance’ will be introduced with an explanation of the correlation between exposure to systems and the perception of risk. Further clarification will be achieved with the association of a familiar experience. This association will be related to domestic fire safety and finally identify meaningful solutions to improve life safety in the home.

 

 

HUMAN BEHAVIOUR: LEARNED IRRELEVANCE

 

Dave M Dowling MEd MIFireE MIMgt

 

 

Learned irrelevance

 

A paper entitled “A behavioural solution to the learned irrelevance of emergency exit signage” (Mc Clintock, Shields, Reinhardt-Rutland & Leslie 2001), introduces the results of research where people recognise emergency exit signs, associate them with safety and that in everyday conditions occupants tend not to recall the location of exit signs. The research goes further to highlight the possible solutions that may be introduced to interrupt learned irrelevance during emergency situations. The understanding is that people are familiar with the signs and, because of this, are not attracted by them in emergency situations. It is suggested that the condition of signs should change in an emergency to attract peoples’ attention.

 

The paper was presented at the 2nd International Symposium on Human Behaviour in Fire – Understanding Human Behaviour for Better Fire Safety Design held in 2001 and is published in the complete collection of the conference book produced by Interscience Communications Ltd, Greenwich 020 8692 5050 - intercomm@dial.pipex.com.

 

Shops are typical of where exit signs are common and yet seem insignificant. The customer is drawn by high profile advertising campaigns and floor layout. The retailer is more interested in keeping the customer in the shop rather than making the way out very clear - retailers are required to satisfy legal requirements and it is often at the minimum required standard.

 

The use of fire exit doors may also be compared in a similar way and are also related to safety but do not change condition, to attract attention, during an emergency situation. A proposed definition for this theory may be described as

 

“familiarity with a system, signal or equipment, which is designed for use in an emergency/critical situation, resulting in inappropriate behaviour”

 

It may also be related to a fire alarm which gives numerous false alarms causing occupants of a building to develop a behaviour pattern where they delay their response whilst determining the status of the signal.

 

Despite the proposed theory of learned irrelevance, a contributory factor during an emergency situation is a person’s decision-making process. This is where the occupant is likely to aim to satisfy rather than optimise an escape plan. The different influences include, time constraints, familiarity of environment and the perception of risk.

 

Perception of risk

 

The theory of ‘learned irrelevance’ may be further developed to explain that a if a person is continuously exposed to something hazardous they may become familiar with the environment, task or journey if no damage or injury is experienced - their perception of risk is reduced. The boundaries may be pushed and short cuts taken as the experience continues.

 

A paper entitled “Can Personal Protective Clothing Influence the Risk-Taking Behaviour of Firefighters?” (Woods 2001) describes research related to risk perception based on the quality of the protection provided. Where there is continuous exposure to an environment and no injury or damage is experienced it is likely that people will become familiar and possibly complacent, developing a pattern of learned irrelevance.

 

Learned Irrelevance can also be used to explain why accidents occur in environments where people have most experience, as they become more familiar with the surroundings. The Health & Safety publication HSG45 entitled “Reducing error and influencing behaviour” refers to ‘people factors’ and how they contribute to accident causation. In similar situations to those described above, human error may be related to ‘routine violations’ which is where “breaking the rule or procedure has become the normal way of working within the work group”. An example may include failure to use a mechanical guard where the process can be made faster and with less effort. In this case the operator may have great experience of taking risk without suffering injury. This will result in a lowered perception of risk, encouraging the potential of further routine violation, which may inevitably result in some form of damage. Routine violations have the potential to cause new work members to develop similar bad habits demonstrated by longer serving employees. The introduction of light beam sensors for safety cut outs and equipment guards is becoming more common in an effort to reduce the potential for routine violations.

 

The previous definition of learned irrelevance is further developed to encompass the aspects of how people behave due to their experience in relation to risk and is described as

 

“Reducing perception of risk through continuous exposure to an activity/environment, which does not involve injury or significant damage”

 

This may also be related to accidents being a more common occurrence in a familiar work place rather than in other more hazardous and unusual environments.

 

 

 

Familiar experience

 

In an effort to highlight the possible correlation between familiarity of exposure to systems and risks, driving will be used as an example of how a person will behave despite the obvious hazards. This scenario is common to most people and likely to be the best vehicle for highlighting the association with the theory of ‘learned irrelevance’. Certain trends in behaviour may be familiar to us or have been witnessed and examples are presented below.

 

·        Some people tend not to wear a seat belt especially if taking short journeys, especially in their local area. Their perception of risk is probably low, possibly because they are travelling at low speed, the journey is short presenting less perceived hazards, and the area is familiar where accidents have not previously occurred. The reality is that other drivers, who may not be in their local area or are on a long journey, pose a hazard and the risk cannot be underestimated! According to the police, most road traffic collisions [RTC’s] occur within three miles of where a person lives and this is likely to be attributed to familiarity with the environment.

 

·        It is becoming more common to see people taking chances at red lights. This includes pushing through at the last minute - the more people get away with this type of behaviour, the more they will take the risk.

 

·        Another common sight on the road is people using a mobile ‘phone whilst driving even though people understand the risk, they still persist in the activity. Again, the more a person takes a risk and gets away with it the more they are likely to develop a habit. We understand the potential danger but ‘it won’t happen to me’!

 

·        According to the police, speed is the greatest cause of death on the road and yet despite static/active road signs and traffic calming measures, the problem persists.

 

The statistics available on the DTLR web-site confirm that the number of fatal road traffic collisions is relatively static at 3,500 per year. This is despite expensive media campaigns (approximately £12million a year) and the continued increase of road users.

 

Specific factors may have an influence on the behaviour of people when they are exposed to a potential hazard. Here is a proposed list of factors, which may explain some of the reasons why people take, or are exposed to, hazards and push boundaries because of learned irrelevance.

 

Factors that may influence human behaviour whilst driving a car.

 

Factor

Interpretation

Experience –

People who have proximity with an RTC may be more aware of the potential outcome of taking risks. The lack of personal experience or injury, despite awareness may not result in cautious behaviour.

Education/awareness

We are exposed to expensive seasonal media campaigns and information is delivered to the public through tax renewal notices, licence and vehicle changes, billboard notices etc. A great deal of money is spent on raising awareness. Drivers receive training and have to pass a test.

Vulnerability

Vulnerable road users may be classed as the elderly and special needs, new and young drivers, people driving poorly maintained vehicles, cyclists and motorcyclists and pedestrians. People with cultural differences.

Priorities

Cost & time

Passive/active systems

Road signs, road markings, barriers, traffic calming measures, traffic signals, speed cameras, seat belts, air bags, side impact systems, roll cages etc.

Authority

Licence endorsements, police cautions, fines, custodial sentences, and Local Authority restrictions/conditions.

 

There are significantly more RTC’s than house fires whether they range from fatal to vehicle damage only, which suggests that more people will have awareness of the risks and subsequent outcomes. Less numbers of people are likely to own or drive a vehicle than live in some form of domestic accommodation, which suggests there is more potential for incidents in the home than on the road – although other factors on the road are often outside our personal control. Cost and time is attributed to the need to make an appointment on time, take a call whilst driving. It is also related to the desire and ability to maintain a vehicle or purchase one with safety features. Despite all the control measures in place it is often the safety systems in a vehicle, which save life. Some of these are active - air bags and seat belt tensioners.

 

Domestic fire safety

 

The DTLR web-site also states that fatalities due to fire in 1999 totalled 466 in domestic premises with an average of 500 per year. The fire service is working nationally to change the behaviour and attitudes of the public currently spends £2.5 million in media campaigns run by the National Community Fire Safety Centre. The same list of factors may be used to compare similarities in factors, which affect fatal driving incidents with fatal domestic fires.

 

An interpretation of the same factors that may influence human behaviour: - domestic situations

 

Factor

Interpretation

Experience

People who have proximity with a domestic fire fatality may be more aware of the potential outcome of taking risks. The lack of personal experience or injury, despite awareness may not result in cautious behaviour.

Education/awareness

National and local campaigns in different forms with leaflet drops after a local incident and, more recently, home fire safety checks. [There is no legal requirement for a tenant to prove any safe standard or pass a test before taking up rented or private accommodation!]

Vulnerability

Alcohol and drugs, smoking, special needs, poor diet and eating habits, culture, DIY fanatic, the neighbour, social deprivation [when it is likely that the diet will consist of cheap and simple food preparation – chip pans, electrical equipment will be sought via cost effective opportunities and may lack maintenance]

Priorities

Cost & time

Passive/active systems

Building construction, smoke alarms, domestic sprinklers [smoke alarms can fail due to the fact they may have been fitted in the wrong place, are not maintained or batteries are removed to prevent unwanted alarms].

Authority

Environmental health, visiting caring *agencies, housing association(s) [tenants agreements], social services, police and local authority building control.

*Some of whom may have been trained by some of the fire brigades to carry out simple home fire safety checks.

 

Fewer people may be affected by a domestic house fire as opposed to a RTC because the audience potential is likely to be greater for the latter. Cost and time in certain domestic environments may mean that occupants do not have the money to spend on new electrical equipment and is more likely to be spent on luxuries such as alcohol or cigarettes. If property repairs or improvements are required it may be the cheapest option for the occupier to do it themselves - DIY. How often does a checkout operator at a large DIY store ask for a certificate of competence for the equipment purchased? The passive and active measures installed in domestic property are limited and unlikely to be monitored or maintained to ensure effective operation/reliability.

 

Despite all the money spent on road safety 3,500 people die each year, for the last ten years, and in-spite of significantly fewer control measures and the lack of money spent on education and awareness for safety in domestic property, only 500 people die in fire each year. There is a correlation between hazard and the perception of risk in both environments due to the fact that people become familiar with certain activities which lowers their perception of risk. With this in mind any attempt to reduce domestic fire fatalities is likely to prove a difficult task through education/awareness alone, especially as the population grows and the vulnerable become a greater percentage each year. This is further highlighted by the fact that evidence of successful home fire safety checks [HFSC], carried out by fire service personnel, is brought to our attention where the active system fitted (smoke alarm) has operated as a result of a fire and alerted the occupant. A fire had still occurred suggesting that attitude and behaviour had not been affected and it would be impossible to determine how many fires have been avoided through education and awareness. Statistical evidence over time may identify improvements as a result of national and local initiatives but this may be established as an assumption!

 

A scenario where a person smokes and experiences a number of minor furniture burns or small fires, which he/she is able to control, is likely to develop a lowered perception of the risk of fire caused by smoking and a learned irrelevance. The fire service will undoubtedly convert a few people along the way, but if we compare schemes that have been put in place to make driving safer, it is unlikely that education and awareness will significantly change behaviour. We become creatures of habit and if we ‘keep getting away with it’ - we are likely to continue! These people are our target audience described in the Home Office (as was) publication “Safe as Houses” as ‘reaching the hard to reach’.

 

With this in mind, if we consider that many emergency service personnel take risks whilst driving and yet we are probably better informed and more familiar than most with the consequences of taking risks whilst driving. A government study on road safety would describe people such as this as ‘reaching the hard to reach’! If emergency service personnel can appreciate the similarities in behaviour, it will put things into perspective when becoming disillusioned, trying to change the behaviour of our ‘vulnerable’ customers.

 

Meaningful solutions

 

If driving is considered a suitable comparison then it is likely that, with the current resources and funding invested in education and awareness, we will fail to change attitudes and behaviour or reduce fatalities year on year without more in-depth work.

 

·        Until in-depth research is carried out into the decision-making process in an environment where learned irrelevance may have developed, it is unlikely that behaviour and attitudes will be changed.

 

·        It is more likely that active systems will continue to be more successful in saving vulnerable life and domestic property. Current initiatives are encouraging the fitting of domestic sprinkler or aqua-mist systems. Domestic smoke alarm ownership has increased significantly over recent years but is still not saving lives efficiently, due to lack of maintenance, incorrect location and lack of audibility because of deafness or whilst under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

 

Ironically, where active safety systems are fitted in cars, it is usually a selling feature and more often only available to the wealthier members of our population.

 

The theory of learned irrelevance is presented as an all-encompassing interpretation of human behaviour where

 

‘familiarity with a system, signal or equipment, which is designed for use in an emergency/critical situation, resulting in inappropriate behaviour

 

or

 

where perception of risk is reduced through continuous exposure to an activity/environment which does not involve injury or significant damage’

 

Once you have an understanding of this proposed development of the original paper, it is possible to relate it other scenarios with the potential need for active control measures. Your comments will be welcomed.

 

References

 

T. Mc Clintock, T. J. Shields, A. H. Reinhardt-Rutland & Julian C. Leslie (2001) A behavioural solution to the learned irrelevance of emergency exit signage Conference papers - 2nd International Symposium on Human Behaviour in Fire – Understanding Human Behaviour for Better Fire Safety Design, Interscience Communications Ltd

 

P. Woods (2001) Can Personal Protective Clothing Influence the Risk-Taking Behaviour of Firefighters? The Fire Engineers Journal, November 2001, Institution of Fire Engineers