Accounting for Human Error

Much of the discourse around campus security—especially active shooter scenarios—revolves around making it as easy as possible for teachers and students to trigger an alarm in the event of an emergency. Part of this logic is time-based; teachers don’t have time to fumble through their cell phone or on their key ring to set off the first step of designated emergency response procedures. The other part, though, is a little more psychological, and it boils down to the idea that humans don’t behave the same way under stress as they do under normal conditions.

A few weeks ago, our dog got sick. (Don’t worry, he’s fine now—this isn’t one of those stories.) I’ll spare you the gory details, but he was having some digestive problems that led to him needing to relieve himself out back multiple times overnight, multiple nights in a row. He barked us awake each time to let us know of his need.

And that’s how I ended up snapping awake at something like 2:07 a.m. on a weeknight to a shrill, insistent yipping. I stumbled out of bed and into the next room to let him out of his kennel. He sprinted past me to the back door. I followed, mumbling encouragements, and placed my hand on the doorknob before remembering—I have to deactivate the house alarm.

I usually do that through the mobile app, but as long as I was up, I decided to just use the touch-screen installation next to the front door. I bounced back to the other end of the house, tapped the screen, squinted at the sudden burst of bright white light. Poked “Deactivate,” which gives us 30 seconds to enter a four-digit code. The keypad appeared on the screen—alongside a clock ticking down from 0:30, with one beep per second.

It's the middle of the night and I’m still not really awake. The dog is still yipping, barking, hurling himself at the back door. The clock is ticking, visibly and audibly. And suddenly, the PIN number I’ve used a hundred times decided to fall out of my head.

A vaguely familiar number materialized after about 10 seconds. I punched it into the touch screen and watched each number appear about a half-second delayed. I got the third digit wrong because I poked a little too far to the right on one number and clipped the edge of the adjacent one. Tapped the back button, nothing happened. Tapped it again, responsive this time. Tried the code again, hit enter, and the warning came back: “INVALID CODE.”

I tried it again, cursing the lag and the not-quite-correctly-calibrated touch-screen. “INVALID CODE” again. Eight seconds left, the clock is red, and the beeps are coming every half-second now. And that’s when I remembered that our door has two codes—one if we’re using the security system directly, and another if we’re using it through Alexa’s smart-home capabilities. I’d been using Alexa’s code, not the primary one.

I punched in the right code, carefully aiming the very tip of my index finger at the dead center of each number. Tapped “enter” with similar, almost sarcastic precision. The clock froze at 0:01, the display turned green, and I successfully avoided summoning local law enforcement with literally less than a second to spare.

I tried to relay the story to my fiancée the next morning. As the words came out, I realized that it sure didn’t sound like a harrowing tale about how I defused a bomb in the nick of time. It sounded like me fumbling the ball on a very straightforward process that we use every day.

I couldn’t help but imagine, say, a third-grade teacher on the downhill slope of the day’s math lesson before lunch. All of a sudden, gunshots ring out. Students start yelling. What kind of grace under pressure—and fine motor skills—are needed for that teacher to remember the school’s emergency response procedure and execute it, quickly and correctly?

Hopefully, as little as possible.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2023 issue of Campus Security Today.

About the Author

Matt Jones is senior editor of Spaces4Learning and Campus Security and Life Safety. He can be reached at [email protected]


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