The Security System Alarm That Cried “Wolf.” How to Manage in a Dangerous World Full of False Alarms.

“Errrt! Errrt! Errrt! This is a test. For the next sixty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. It is only a test.”


“This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. If this had been an actual emergency, you’d have no idea what’s going on. Because you turn this off the second it starts.”

Did anyone ever listen until the end of the test? We thought we were seriously over-alarmed and over-alerted in the 80’s. We had no idea what was coming for us in the 2010’s:

Amber alerts, silver alerts, push notifications, email notifications, instant message notifications, malware alerts, firewall alerts, global warning alerts, update notices, bank account notices, measles outbreak notices, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, radon detectors, BS detectors, storm warnings and now fitness trackers that zap us until we get up.

Wired for High Alert Status

It’s a miracle we’re not completely numb. But eight million years of evolution are hard to overcome. As one of many species trying to make it on the plains of the Serengeti, we weren’t the biggest, strongest, fastest, or most well-armed.

But we were tense. Really tense. Ready to jump at the slightest hint of threat. Our ancestors didn’t need caffeine. They were on high alert every moment of every day so that they could stay alive.

Deaths due to stress vs. bears. Does technology contribute?Their default mode was the “Type 1” error. A false positive. Seeing a threat where there isn’t one. Treat everything like the real deal until you can prove otherwise. It was a very low risk error to make. Running from something that turned out to not be a threat didn’t lose you much beyond a bit of energy. You could do it many, many times in a day and still survive to pass on your genes.

But fail to respond to an actual threat just once? The consequences of the “Type 2” error, ignoring a real threat, were very bad. These who made the mistake of thinking it was just the wind and not a bear ended up in that bear’s belly. And that means their genes didn’t get passed on. So for millions of years, only those who were the most reactive, constantly on high alert and the most likely to jump at any potential threat were those were most likely to reproduce.

We’ve done a great job of reducing the risk of death by predator but we haven’t turned off our hard-wired adrenaline reactions. Which is why stress kills roughly 20,000 times more people than do bears each year.

CyberAlert Fatigue Sets In

I’m in business to make your business life better. To solve business problems with technology and reduce your stress levels. Not give you more things to be alarmed about. But we’ve got to talk about cybersecurity. Or as I like to call it … “security.”

Cybersecurity is security.

Security is the precaution you take to protect your stuff against threats. Any of your stuff – whether it’s analog (i.e. physical items like your car) or digital (i.e. electronic information like your credit card number).

Have you given up on locking your doors because you haven’t ever been robbed? Of course not. We’re still vigilant when it comes to securing our physical stuff, but we’re actually less concerned about digital security according to a recent Bloomberg survey. Despite the evidence. In 2012, we were 2.4 times more likely to be a victim of identity theft than a violent crime.

How to Avoid Alert FatigueDanger Will Robinson - the first instance of cyberalert fatique.

Alert fatigue is a reasonable response to the constant barrage of alerts and alarms. If you’re alive to read this, you probably haven’t ignored an alarm which had the most final of dire consequences. Not to say that you’ve probably had your share of extra expenses, headaches, and problems from procrastinating on urgent issues or in ignoring warnings, but for the most part, you’re doing okay.

But it’s like the person who had a lot of little twinges and warning signs that all is not well with their heart. Unless they’re a hypochondriac or look up their symptoms on WebMD (which seems to always suggest either cancer or trypanosomiasis), they figure since nearly everything else seems to be a false alarm, this must be one, too. Everything is fine until it isn’t.

I wonder if those who run the networks at the New York Stock Exchange or United Airlines ignored any warning signs or alarms in the weeks or months before the massive outages that took their networks down for hours. No one died as a result, but financially, the results were dire both for them and their clients.

So why do we ignore similar warnings on a personal or business level. It might be because it’s hard to see the result of identity theft or business data breaches. Maybe you have to get a new debit card, which is a pain in the neck, but doesn’t make you lose sleep like you do after your house has been robbed while your family was home.

Unless you’re a business person and your livelihood and that of dozens of other people and their families depend on the security of your data. Again, I hope to guarantee that no warnings, alarms, or updates are going to be ignored at the NYSE.

But even as important as it is, there are so many alarms and alerts and updates that we become indifferent. Vital signals and warning signs get missed and that’s when the damage is done.

As a Business Technologist, I want to give you fewer things to worry about.

Here’s how to reduce and avoid alert fatigue.

Turn Off Unimportant Alerts

Everything you respond to takes your time and energy. Our brains can’t tell the difference between an important phone call and a Facebook notice. Unless you’re a social media manager responsible for monitoring customer compliments and complaints, save your brain power and turn off social media notifications.

Look at every notification you get and ask, “Is this something I can do without? Do I need to know about this when it happens or can I look at it later?” Put yourself in charge of responding, not the notices.

Create a Process for Responding

The exhausting part about all these updates is having to decide what to do about each and every one of them. Even if the decision is to ignore it, we’ve still used up brain power. Don’t use your brains for routine stuff. Let habits and processes simplify it.

At J –  I.T. Outsource, we have a process for responding to anything that happens more than once. Our clients’ requests for service are an alert. The process begins with gathering information about the problem, capturing the details and then routing them to the person who is able to respond the quickest based on the type of problem.

The ticketing system does generate a few emails, but it’s part of making sure that we not only make the initial response, but that it’s taken care of all the way through.

When you’ve got an alert or alarm to respond to and it happens more than once, create a process for responding. Even if it’s a simple one or two steps, write it down. The less you and your team have to remember about the routine stuff, the more effort you can put into creative and unusual situations.

Tesla Motors factory as an example of technology automation.Automate Using Technology

One of our clients uses an email autoresponder to notify people that he checks only twice a day at specific times. It helps him be very efficient in responding to messages and it gives people a clear expectation of when he’ll be replying.

We use a great deal of technology to monitor our clients’ servers 24/7 without keeping our technical staff up all night. We use technology to automatically track the progress of projects, such as the complex on-boarding process we use for all our new clients. We also use it for more personal issues such as scheduling regular meetings and blocking out time for vital projects.

If you have processes that rely on notifications and updates, create an automatic system to respond and monitor.

Outsource to the Experts

You hire security guards because they are experts in watching for, and responding to, physical threats to your people and your property. You hire an I.T. services company because they are experts in business technology. They absolutely should be making security a considerable portion of the time they spend monitoring and managing your technology assets.

Putting It All Together

We create processes using automation to make sure that we are alerted for the right problems at the right time so that we can respond quickly and appropriately. We don’t allow ourselves to suffer from “alert fatigue” because we know that your business survival depends on the right effort in the right places to be sure your data, systems and organization is safe and secure.

If you are a client and you have questions about putting any of these strategies in place, I am your Virtual Chief Technology Officer. Contact me and we’ll solve your business problems with technology. If you’re not a client, I’m still happy to help you review your system, processes, and alarm settings.

Photo credits:
“Please stand by” from Flickr, courtesy of SparkFun Electronics

Bears vs. Stress created by J –  I.T. Outsource, data on stress from Joel Goh, Harvard Business School, “The Relationship Between Workplace Practices and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States,” data on deaths by bear from Wikipedia,

“Robby the Robot” from Flickr, courtesy of Joshua Ganderson.

“Tesla Motors” from Flickr, courtesy of Steve Jurvetson.