21.3.11

In the Hot Zone.

Suppose there's a fire in a shop at the mall.

Evacuating the shop makes perfect sense. Get people out of there, they're in danger.

Evacuating the mall makes sense, too. No, you can't continue shopping while firefighters are at work. Besides, it's better safe than sorry, in case the fire spreads. However, that doesn't mean the people in the food court are at any sort of real risk.

Evacuating the parking lot? Well, it stands to reason, if only because there's no reason for people to park at a mall they can't enter. But unsurprisingly, nobody here is at risk of burning to death.

Now, imagine the newspaper in another town hearing about this, and asking their mall, "Could a fire happen here?"

"Well," the mall owner would reply, "we have fire alarms, and sprinkler systems, and we can always call the fire department. We follow proper safety precautions, and we make sure all electric renovations are up to code."

"I see, I see," says the reporter, but for some reason his photographer is taking pictures of stacks of magazines in the drug store. "But a fire could still happen?"

"If you're asking if there are flammable things in this mall, then yes."

At this point, the newspaper has to ask themselves which story they want to run...

The curse of safety guidelines is that no one ever wants to say "safe enough". Especially when it's said as a defence after the fact. But at some point, the chance of you dying in a mall fire approaches the chance that you'll spontaneously combust. Before things reach that stage of preparedness, perspective is necessary.

Nuclear power isn't going to be the doom of our country.

And the background radiation in Japan isn't going to turn half of Tokyo sterile.

The real story is that 10,000 people died there, and entire villages were destroyed. That's where their perspective is right now, and if you want to help with that, it's not a bad idea.

(Incidentally, this isn't really aimed at any news organisation in particular, and it's certainly not irresponsible to cover the story at the Fukushima Reactor. But it's really a story about engineering at this point, rather than public safety.)

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.