Lone Worker Protection and the Screech Alarm – Beware Bystander Apathy!

Using a personal safety “screech”-type alarm might be useful as part of an overall escape strategy in Lone Worker Protection, but it shouldn’t be a psychological crutch. 

What is the real utility of the siren on a screech alarm?

  1. to tell people that you are in trouble and need help?
  2. to cause the bad-guy pain from the high volume of the alarm?
  3. to call attention to the event which is taking place?
  4. to distract the bad-guy?

Screech alarms are my least-favourite personal safety risk-control measure, because of the following analysis.

Even if other people hear a loud alarm sound, then there is no guarantee whatsoever that they will investigate the origin of the noise.  Perhaps they will dismiss the sound as yet another car alarm being activated by a gust of wind.

If they DO investigate then there is absolutely no guarantee that they will then decide to get involved if they find a violent confrontation at the origin of the noise.  Most people I have asked this question will tell me that they would certainly hesitate to intervene in anything that looked like a domestic dispute between a man and a woman, for example.

Bystander apathy means that very frequently people hesitate and often fail to intervene at all.   In Social Psychology this phenomenon is known as the Genovese Effect.   Sociologists have been studying the Bystander Effect for many years and it is named after a famous case in New York.

Kitty Genovese

On Friday 13 March in 1964, 28-year-old Catherine Genovese was arriving home in her built-up neighbourhood from a late night shift as a bar manager in Queens, New York. She was suddenly attacked with a knife by a man named Winston Moseley. She screamed aloud “Oh my God, I’ve been stabbed! Please help me!”   Lots of people heard her – that’s how we know what she screamed.

Moseley saw lights come on in nearby apartments. He knew people were watching, so he ran off, leaving Catherine to drag herself into a doorway.  She lay there bleeding but still alive –  she could have survived at this point.

Her attacker decided to return to finish off what he’d started because, as he later said in court: “It didn’t seem like anyone was going to stop me!” Although badly weakened by now, she again screamed for help.

Of 38 witnesses who heard or saw some part of the attack (which took place over about half an hour in total), not one took action to help her. By the time the police were eventually called, she was dead.

Libraries full of research which has been undertaken into ‘bystander apathy’ since this horrific crime has shown that the behaviour of the 38 witnesses is actually quite normal in the context in which they found themselves.

Loud Noises as a Painful Distraction

If you’ve read this far, then I hope you will agree with me when I make the following statement:  if the bad-guy has gotten this far into a violent assault on you, then loud noises are unlikely to make him go away.  If he is sufficiently aroused and adrenalised, then it is even possible that he won’t really hear or register the screeching alarm.   In any case, this is a less-optimal strategy – you need to be moving rather than clinging to a screeching alarm and hoping for the best.  The best way to cause a painful distraction – if it really becomes necessary to do so – is to inflict one the old-fashioned way with your hands or other natural tool.

Calling Attention to the Incident

In all fairness to the screech alarm, Calling People’s Attention is good, because with few exceptions outside of the scope of this book, there isn’t a bad-guy you are likely to meet who wants other people watching, listening or intervening while he does his thing.  He wants privacy, he wants to be away from prying eyes and he wants to have autonomy during the incident.  As noted above though, this should not be the prime strategy – your bad-guy may decide to abort his plan and run away if he thinks that there is too much attention coming his way.  If not, you need a more robust plan – fast-forward to our chapters on using Reasonable Force and on Behavioural Personal Safety to learn more about what may be next.


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Gerard O’Dea is a professional violence-management trainer/consultant who has been active in personal safety training since 2006.  He regularly delivers training to local authority, housing organisation and other community-based staff teams who work with sometimes difficult, distressed or dangerous members of the public.  His approach to lone-worker training is pragmatic, functional and based on a keen analysis of the issues in the real world of community working.  Gerard published “Lone Worker Personal Safety:  A Guidebook for Health and Social Care Staff” (on Amazon in Paperback and on Kindle) in 2014.  For more information please visit:  https://www.dynamis.training/lone-worker-personal-safety/

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