False alarms go to sea, cause death, ecological disaster

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07/26/2010

We all know false alarms are a nuisance to society: they cost taxpayers money, waste police resources, potentially dull response times and put officers’ lives in danger, and damage the relationships alarm companies have with municipalities and the public, among other scourges. I’ve written plenty of stories about false alarms and false alarm reduction efforts. But did you know they may also have helped to cause one of the largest ecological disasters in human history?

A July 23 story from The Los Angeles Times reports an investigation has uncovered the fact that alarms on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that monitored for fire and gas leaks were “inhibited” (meaning they would not sound at all–even if there was a real emergency) for as long as a year before the explosion occurred because those in command of the rig did not want their sleep interrupted by false alarms blaring out in the night.

Wow, really? I gotta be honest, if I were a worker (or another upper management type–Jeez, if I was on that rig at all, no matter who I was) on that rig (basically a humongous pile of hot, clanking, moving, metal parts sitting on top of and poking at an unbelievably large pressurized pocket of explosively flammable gas and oil) and I heard they’d shut off the alarms that were potentially saving me from getting blown up and/or burned alive, I’d probably be like, “ya know, why don’t you go ahead and just leave those on–better safe than sorry.” Eleven people were killed in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, and we’ve all seen the footage of BP’s growing oil slick.

I like this paragraph from the LA Times story:

“The alarm systems could have been helpful to alert crew members of catastrophe and initiate an emergency shutdown system that could have shut down the engines — a dangerous ignition source — as soon as a surge of flammable natural gas surged up the oil well onto the rig.”

Nothing like stating the obvious. The also say in the story that workers had continually accidentally tripped emergency shut down systems and alarms and that they had become something of a nuisance. People do the same thing with their home alarm systems–stop using them because they don’t want to keep setting them off by mistake. They don’t want to keep paying the false alarm fines. The problem is that the alarm is only good if it’s used. The solution is to learn how to use the equipment properly, not to shut off the equipment.

Here’s the thing. The disaster may have happened anyway, even if the alarms had been in place since it is believed a belch of natural gas that erupted up the oil line caught fire and caused an explosion. However, had the alarms been functioning properly, rather than intentionally disabled, lives may have been saved, property not blown up and ecosystems not destroyed. Doesn’t all that benefit outweigh the sleep quality of the guy in charge? They’re called earplugs, buddy, look into them.