Eindhoven University of Technology: Risks, smoke alarms and advice

Prevention campaigns against fire or burglary are much more effective if knowledge is used about what exactly is deterring people from buying a smoke alarm, alarm system or fire extinguisher. This is one of the conclusions reached by part-time doctoral candidate Patty Jansen, who conducted her research alongside her job with insurer Interpolis.

Everyone benefits when people do their best to prevent fire, burglary or water damage in the home. Not only general insurers like Patty Jansen’s employer Interpolis but also, of course, those directly involved: physical injury and much of the damage, such as the loss of family photos, are simply beyond financial compensation. Nonetheless, getting people to take preventive measures is a real challenge, she explains.

“This might be for all kinds of reasons. To start with, of course, a person must feel that a risk exists, so there has to be a reasonable chance that your bike will be stolen or that fire will break out. Next, the consequences must be perceived as being so severe that you want to avoid them. And preventive measures must be viewed as effective: can I really put out a fire with a fire blanket? Am I capable of using the thing properly?” Finally, people might feel that a measure is simply too time-consuming or too expensive. Any of these aspects can throw a spanner in the works, Jansen points out. “If you are running a public information campaign, you have to pay this some careful attention.”

At present, she believes, these campaigns often still put too strong an emphasis on risk perception – which involves highlighting the probability and severity of specific risks. “This is the realm of familiar phrases like, ‘Burglaries are more common in the winter months! Smoking kills you! In less than three minutes your entire house is on fire!’” Her own research, however, shows that, above all, a measure must be seen to be effective and be easy to implement. “This is why almost everyone locks the door behind them when they leave. It’s no effort and it makes all the difference.”

In addition, some people are evidently more cautious than others. “This seems to be the case for all kinds of prevention. People who hold an escape drill every year often have a burglar alarm. Vice versa, people who don’t have smoke alarms are not likely to install security locks.” We don’t know exactly why one person does more towards prevention than another, states Jansen. “It may be that how a person deals with risks is anchored in our characters, and that is difficult to influence. You do see that people who have experienced a fire at first hand subsequently take more measures, but this effect is only temporary.”

An example. A quarter of homes have no functioning smoke alarms. “Why is this exactly? Before you start an intervention campaign, you have to answer this question. You don’t just have to buy these things, you have to hang them up, test them every month, replace the batteries. At any one of these steps, things can go awry.”

Jansen decided to concentrate on the barrier to buying smoke alarms in the first place. “To do this, I accompanied the fire service on visits to a number of households in Tilburg. It turned out that often people did have smoke alarms but that they were a cause of annoyance because they would go off during cooking or for no apparent reason. People respond by taking out the batteries. One person who did that had even had a fire at home recently. Another finding was that people are daunted by the prospect of putting up smoke alarms.” She subsequently tested these findings by running a big survey among six hundred participants. Among other things, this revealed that people who don’t have smoke alarms often think other people don’t have them either.

Next, she applied this knowledge in an experiment, by sending emails appealing to the recipient to buy smoke alarms, and including a link to a webshop. “In some of these mails I used the standard method, pointing out the risks of fire. It turned out that this prompted only four percent to buy a smoke alarm.” But in response to mails in which she wrote that no fewer than 76 percent of households has a smoke alarm and that they can be easily affixed with magnetic stickers, more than twice as many people bought a smoke alarm.

This outcome was consistent with her inventory of reasons why we don’t all yet have smoke alarms. “That fire is dreadful and smoke alarms save lives, people know. Emphasizing that is therefore less effective.” A mail in which she offered smoke alarms at a discount, incidentally, received the least positive response: only one percent.

After having spent seven years working two days a week at the Human-Technology Interaction group at TU/e and three at Interpolis, which sponsored one of these two days and was keen to include her new insights in its own public information campaigns, Jansen has returned full time to the insurer. “Before I decided that I wanted to gain a doctorate, I interviewed a few people and learned that ‘external’ doctoral candidates often don’t make it to the end. And so it was important for me that I had two full days a week for my doctoral work. For me personally, the combination of gaining a doctorate alongside my work was ideal: it gave me the depth and critical reflection of the academic world and the dynamism and focus on results you get from working in the field.”

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