False Alarms and Other Considerations

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

False alarms and erroneous error messages: if you have technology in your call center, then you’ve likely been frustrated by these events. I was recently reminded of this as I searched for the source of an electronic alarm, warning me that something was awry in my home.

Eventually, I found the culprit: a carbon monoxide detector. In addition to the beeping, the power light was flashing red — even though the only documented options were solid green and solid amber. Pressing reset didn’t help, so I unplugged it for a few minutes; that had always worked in the past. After an hour of futile troubleshooting, I began to consider that maybe it was working and there were actually unsafe carbon dioxide levels in my home.

What a novel thought; in all my years at call centers, I never experienced a smoke, fire, or carbon monoxide alarm that correctly worked when it was supposed to. In fact, I’d been conditioned to assume that any alarm was the result of malfunction. Smoke detectors were high on that list, with their low battery beeps and an occasional false alarm. When I would test them, no one ever left their station to evacuate; no one ever asked if there was a fire. The response was always one of irritation: “Make it stop so that we can hear.”

UPSs also seemed to do more harm than good. It’s confounding for a malfunctioning UPS to take down the servers and switch when perfectly good utility power is available. Yet it happens. For a while I kept track: UPSs were actually causing more downtime then they prevented. Generators also fit that category. Regardless if there was an automatic transfer switch or a manual bypass, inevitably something would go wrong. Despite agent training and trial runs, nothing seemed to adequately prepare staff to deal with an actual power outage.

Spare parts and backup circuits were another cause for frustration. You have them in case of an emergency, periodically testing them to make sure they work. Unfortunately, it seems that efforts to do so invariably result in unexpected side-effects and problems, including system crashes.

The last category of irritations involves data backups. As if making successful backups isn’t challenging enough, retrieval is fraught with peril. Attempts to do so have crashed systems and corrupted good data.

These issues gives one pause to consider if such contingency efforts and provisions actually accomplish a net benefit or do more harm than good. Regardless, it would be irresponsible not to do all that can be done to keep staff safe, systems functioning, lines open, and data secure. The frustrations and false alarms are merely a side-effect that one must accept in the process.

As far as my issue at home, I ended up buying a new detector. The replacement unit did not alert; apparently it was a false alarm after all.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

Leave a Reply