Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on June 14, 2022.

Don’t Fret

Worrying about a fire makes you less likely to respond to one correctly, an Irish study finds


If you often worry about experiencing a home fire, it would stand to reason that you’d be more likely to evacuate if you heard the smoke alarm go off, right?


That was one of the counterintuitive findings of a study published in the journal Safety Science in April. In the study, researchers at Dublin City University surveyed more than 450 people living in apartment complexes throughout the Irish capital, asking them questions about their fire safety awareness, preparedness, and associated behaviors. Some of the findings made perfect sense, such as a high level of worry about fire translating to a 27 percent increase in smoke alarm testing.

Other results were the opposite of what you might expect—high fire worry was also associated with a 33 percent drop in the respondent acting in accordance with building evacuation policies.

The study was born, in an indirect way, out of the Grenfell Tower fire, the fifth anniversary of which is today. After that blaze, which killed 72 people in a high-rise in London, the Irish government called for more research into fire safety measures in homes and public perception of fire risk. “In response to the call, this study explored the factors influencing fire safety preparedness within Irish residential apartments in order to provide critical insight into fire safety preparedness and make a theoretical and practical contribution to fire safety research,” the study’s authors write. 

Gavin Brown, the lead author of the study, said he and other researchers were “intrigued” by the finding that a high level of worry correlated with a lower chance of proper evacuation, which is why the research team says it’s important to not use fear as a tactic in teaching fire safety messages.

“Based on our analysis, we would caution against inducing worry or fear to encourage fire safety actions, since our research suggests it could be counterproductive in some situations,” Brown said. “Providing information about what fire safety actions to take, along with how these actions will make a difference, and ultimately working to build households’ confidence to take action rather than scaring homes into taking action, should be the focus of fire education campaigns.”

Human behavior during fires and other emergencies can be tricky to predict, and research has long supported that. “In the movies at least, people run away with their arms flailing. But the reality is the most natural human response in the face of danger is to simply do nothing,” science journalist Zaria Gorvett wrote in a 2017 BBC article.

Although people who reported worrying more about fire were more likely to test their smoke alarms, Brown said the overall number of people who said they didn’t test their smoke alarms at least once a year was high—about 40 percent of respondents. “This is especially noteworthy,” Brown said, “as fire safety campaigns across Ireland encourage weekly smoke alarm testing.” The researchers recommend future messaging on smoke alarms that targets groups who were found to be less likely to be testing them, like women and households lacking children.

Download the full study here

ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni. Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES