A cartoon dog sits in his burning house, insisting that the situation around him is "fine".

The UX of Fire: Some Meditations on a Crisis

My wife, baby and I recently stayed in a decent hotel. We wanted a suite, as it helps us have a life after our baby goes to bed. We got this suite at a pretty reasonable price and at a hotel that was recently renovated and well-reviewed.

As we sat there in the other room, listening to our baby fall asleep, my wife and I exhausted from the days events, we heard a loud klaxon sound and, shortly thereafter, a series of warnings in both male and female voices:

“MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE:” the female voice requested.

“THERE HAS BEEN A FIRE REPORTED IN THE HOTEL. PLEASE PROCEED TO THE FIRE EXIT STAIRS. DO NOT USE THE ELEVATOR.” the male voice directed.

John Mulaney discusses the voices of the NY Subway train.

John Mulaney, in his recent SNL opening monologue, revealed something shocking about why there are both male and female voices in use on the New York City Subway system. In short: people will take information from a woman but will only take orders from a man. Interesting timing, given what happened to us over the weekend and the use of different voices in the hotel fire alarm system.

So, there we were: a baby that HAD been sleeping and was woken up in the most terrifying manner possible, and her parents, one concerned, one just angry. (Me. I was the angry one. No use in pretending.)

I was angry because I was convinced that some idiot had pulled a fire alarm as a joke. As I looked around, however, I was struck by the fact that there were no visible alarm switches on the hallway walls, nor were there any in the rooms.

I wondered, “How can an alarm be sounded if there are no alarms to pull?” It then occurred to me that this was probably caused by someone smoking in their room.

I was busy cussing the entire concept of smoking, alarms and hotels when I noticed something strange: none of the hotel staff were fleeing. An engineering crew was going floor to floor to check out the situation, but there were bartenders and servers and room service staff in the lobby, unwilling to leave or even assist in the panic.

I noticed that many of the hotel patrons were simply staying put. No one was willing to brave the roughly 20° F night in their PJs. They just wanted to be safe and warm. Eventually the patrons in the parking lot all moved back into the lobby and, when the all-clear was given, grumpily stumbled back to their rooms. My wife and baby and I never fully left the hotel; we were there with the lobby group, content that the fire wasn’t IN the lobby, and hopeful that our baby would go right back to sleep. Thankfully, she did. As we returned, we noticed many others who not only didn’t go all the way outside, they didn’t even come to the lobby with us; they stayed in their rooms the entire time.

No firemen were on the scene; there must be some sort of stop-gap between “alarm goes off” and “firemen show up”. Maybe a manager has to verify that a fire happened at all?

What we had, in summary:

  • An order to evacuate that only half the patrons heeded, compelled (but not forced) to leave their comfortable hotel room in a panic over a fire that never happened
  • A woken-up baby who needs plenty of sleep for everyone in the family to be functional the next day
  • A rough night’s sleep for me and my wife, terrified that the alarm would go off again

The Glowering Inferno

I was angry when all that happened. In my anger, I started drawing out a fire plan for modern hotels in my head. I made several assumptions that I think are reasonable:

  1. Smoke detectors are smarter than ever – You can’t throw a rock in a hardware store without hitting a fancy, new-fangled smoke detector. They can detect not only smoke but carbon monoxide and other harmful gasses. If I’m a hotel chain, I would strongly consider upgrading the fire detection network and gathering better information about why the alarm is going off. Is the room noticably hotter than other rooms when the smoke is detected? Is smoke detected in any adjacent rooms? If so, how many? There have to be ways to gather smarter data about emergency situations.
  2. Let’s stop pretending hotels can’t see everything – If the hotel manager checks one of the umpteen-hundred cameras that, let’s face it, hotels are training on their hallways and gathering areas, and sees smoke, flame, or people running, they can then apply that data to the situation.
  3. Processes are people, too – If an alarm sounds, every staff member should take up the charge to keep people safe and informed. Bartenders, engineering crew, custodial, front-desk staff, the whole shot. They should be in the lobby with blankets and robes for people who were underdressed for the cold. Having been on a cruise ship, I can tell you that everyone on the crew knows emergency procedure. They test themselves, they follow orders, and they know how to assist the passengers if the ship is going down; is it too much to expect that of hotel staff and to pay them for their time and effort on that front?

I can think of a million reasons this wouldn’t be adopted. For one, most hotels still haven’t upgraded their most important hardware; thermostats, heaters and air conditioning units, fridges, electrical outlets, ice makers – they’re all still outdated, even when the wallpaper and the keurig are new. I imagine it’s because they’re more expensive than cosmetic updates, but damn, they’re SO integral to the hotel experience.

Honestly, the alarm itself is not designed to “manage” a fire emergency; it just has to wake everyone up and get them moving toward safety. The goal is to minimize the hotel’s liability. You can’t say “I didn’t hear the alarm” if it was blinking and blaring and yelling directions at you. And yes, everyone heard it. But if you don’t heed it? Then what? Is the hotel fully indemnified? Shouldn’t they be invested in fully evacuating the hotel and getting everyone out safely?

I don’t pretend to be an expert in public safety procedure. I’m just a UX/UI designer and, as such, I spend a lot of time in hotels, and a lot of time picking on hotels for their shortcomings. The best hotels don’t bother with in-room seltzer water or sliding barn doors on their bathrooms (which is a terrible idea, by the way). They put clean sheets on the beds, they put an envelope in the desk (so you can leave a tip for room service staff), they never short you on towels, and they update the hardware before sweating the interior design. The air conditioner works and the water pressure is steady and the water temperature is nice and hot, but not boiling. Can’t the fire procedure be an investment, too? Wouldn’t hotels benefit from having a system that identifies the type of problem they’re facing and minimizes the risk to other guests an evacuation (or the lack of one) might bring? Wouldn’t guests be more inclined to stay loyal to a chain if they knew they could count on the people who worked there?

In closing, if a hotel has a mass evacuation that turns out to be a false alarm and no firepeople are called to respond, the person who was smoking in their room should be arrested, charged a $5,000 fine and slapped repeatedly. Every other hotel guest should get 10% of their room rate back on their bill. That, or a free half-hour to drink/eat whatever they want in the in-room mini bar. I’m just saying.