Thursday, July 23, 2009

Testing the System

for @DevilsRefugee (Theo Priestley)

I used to work in an office where, every now and again, an announcement would be made over the tannoy. "The fire alarm system will be tested at 11 o'clock. Please stay at your desks."

What exactly was this "fire alarm system" that was being tested here? My idea of a fire alarm system involves people responding appropriately and without panic to some kind of audible signal. The purpose of the fire alarm system is to get people safely out of a burning building, and the purpose of the test is presumably to make sure that the system works.

But if the office manager's idea of a successful test was that people stay at their desks despite the signal, then obviously that's not the system she meant. Probably focused on testing the wiring. (To my mind, that's just a subsystem.)

Teaching people to ignore fire alarm signals is a really stupid idea, isn't it? I worked in another office with proper tests of the fire alarm, where we all had to leave the building without prior warning and not using the lifts. But there was a guy on my floor on crutches, and he would be told of the drill in advance and advised to remain at his desk. When we figured this out, we just looked over to him when the alarm signal sounded; if he was ignoring it, we knew it was just a test.

Okay, so the test proves we can get all the able-bodied people out of the building quickly. What does that imply for my friend on crutches? Was the office manager not bothered whether he could get out of the building in a real fire?

How someone goes about testing a system reveals what exactly they think the system is, as well as what they think is important about it.

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