On Thursday, officials released a report on the Provo Tabernacle fire, explaining how repeated human mistakes–among a number of people–apparently allowed a fire to destroy the building. How could so many people cumulatively fail in their responsibility? According to the Daily Herald and the Deseret News:
- The inspector and owner did not warn fire officials that the smoke detector system had failed inspection. It wasn’t sensitive enough to detect small amounts of smoke.
- Inadequate fire alarm system installed (no remote alerts, no sprinklers)
- Lighting technician apparently left a 300-watt light bulb on a wooden box, still hooked up to the lighting system
- Several people were concerned about whether the light bulbs were fully disconnected, but none checked with the technician.
- At a concert that night, choir members smelled something strange, but they thought it was normal from the intense lighting system and did not report it to the fire department.
- Two camera operators smelled smoke, but they also thought it was normal for the lights and did not report it.
- A passer-by saw a “fog” by the building and thought little of it (didn’t smell smoke)
- Security guard heard an alarm, but the building coordinator told him that the alarm frequently malfunctioned and to turn it off; the guard never realized it was a fire alarm
- The same guard heard popping and crackling sounds, but thought it was the building settling.
- Finally, another security guard next door saw something that could be smoke coming out of the building and told the first guard, who finally found the fire.
The purpose here isn’t to assign blame or to criticize anyone’s decisions. It is to point out that several people could have stopped this fire, and to suggest three possible explanations for what happened.
Diffusion of Responsibility
Two historical tragedies created a lasting interest among social psychologists in peoples’ willingness (or lack thereof) to stand up, take responsibility, and act to prevent potential problems. The first was the holocaust, in which many otherwise ethical soldiers committed terrible crimes. The second was the legendary murder of Kitty Genovese, during which quite a large number of people were reported to have watched the murder without calling the police or intervening. This led to the theory of the bystander effect: the more bystanders there are, the less likely any of them are to intervene. Many psychologists call this a “diffusion of responsibility.”
Nobody has expressed this concept more memorably than science fiction writer Douglas Adams, who imagined a Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) field. It could make spaceships effectively invisible by forcing the minds of everyone nearby to dismiss the ship as somebody else’s problem. Why worry about it? Someone else will take care of it.
It seems likely that some of those who could have prevented the fire failed to do so because they figured someone else would take care of it. For example, why update the fire alarm system if you expect that nobody will do anything risky enough to cause a fire? They may have been morally justified in their assumptions, but the fire still happened.
Another explanation is that people chose to ignore possible danger signs because they didn’t want to believe something was wrong. Freud’s theory that we routinely repress unpleasant thoughts and memories may be a little extreme, but it is true that most of us try to avoid painful truths from time to time. For instance, if you see or smell something that could be smoke, you might not report it unless you were sure it was a problem. Quite a number of people didn’t report something that could be a problem, thinking it was probably fine. Even the security guard next door who finally reported the smoke wasn’t sure it was smoke, but he made sure it was checked on anyway.
A Culture of Politeness
One final possibility is that social norms played a role. Sometimes, we can become very concerned with not being a nuisance; we wouldn’t want to bother anyone by double-checking with them to make sure everything is okay. In other words, if somebody had a concern, they might have chosen not to ask about it so that they wouldn’t bother the fire department, the lighting technician, or the building coordinator.
Only the individuals will know for sure exactly why they did what they did, but the Provo Tabernacle fire stands as a new and fascinating example of how the cumulative mistakes of normal human beings can appear surprisingly irresponsible.