If someone asked you right now where the closest fire extinguisher was, would you be able to answer correctly? Or answer at all? Safety is a major issue and is emphasized with safety training. Safety preparations are all around us, from fire alarms to flight attendants’ preflight speeches, from flashing exit signs, to street lights. But how much of this important information do we tune out? Researchers at UCLA recently conducted a study to find out just how well the average person retains information from safety training.
Alan Castel, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study, along with Keith Holyoak, another UCLA psychology professor, asked 54 people who worked in the same building on UCLA’s campus where the closest fire extinguisher was after they had a mandatory safety meeting. Only 13 people knew where the closest extinguisher was — just 24 percent.
However, when they were asked to actually go and find a fire extinguisher, everyone was able to in a matter of seconds, despite not remembering where one was. So why were these people able to go and find a fire extinguisher so quickly even though so few of them could actually remember where it was?
“One possibility is that simply because we have seen something many times, it doesn’t necessarily register in our memory,” Castel said. “Once you have had to find it, you will remember where it is later, so we hope that this study might provide a useful exercise in terms of being able to locate this important safety device.”
Another important question the researchers asked was, why has this facet of human memory been overlooked for so long? This project showed that the more interactive the safety training is, the more likely that the people will remember the locations of important tools.
“The more interactive our learning process becomes, the more we retain what we’ve learned,” said Dorje M. Jennette, a psychologist for UC Davis Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). “Practicing the process of locating the nearest fire extinguisher would improve safety training. [Safety trainers] could help to build curiosity about the answer by initially asking people where [the extinguisher] is, instead of telling them off the bat.”
Another interesting discovery during the study was made when the same people were asked again a few months later to find the nearest extinguisher, and all 54 of them were able to answer correctly — a huge improvement for the initial 13 that answered correctly a few months earlier.
“The physical action of looking for [the extinguisher] is what made all the difference,” Holyoak said.
So instead of zoning out during your yearly training, be active during it. In an emergency this knowledge could keep you calm during the panic, and be the difference between life and death.
KELLY MITCHELL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.