Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Pointless smoke-detector tests and waste of other humans’ time and money in Germany

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I have repeatedly written on both undue government interventions and undue invasion of privacy and other intrusions through various service/test/measurement/whatnot companies, e.g. in A German’s home is not his castle / a few issues around inspections and meter readings ([1]).

Earlier this week, I had the yearly smoke-detector test: a professional service company (Objektus) came by, a man walked in with a broom stick (or something similar), used it to push the test button on the two smoke-detectors, noted that they made a hellish noise, and left again—after having spent likely less than twenty seconds in my apartment and doing nothing that I could not have done myself.

This for a legally mandated yearly check that involves paid professionals, a load of travel and bureaucracy, and which forces the victims to take large chunks out of their days to meet the dictated times, with direct and indirect costs that are in no proportion to the value* of the service.

*Even assuming that smoke-detectors bring significant value to begin with, to which I am at least somewhat skeptical (this appears to be more propaganda and lobbying than science and data, cf. parts of [2]); and even assuming that a yearly test, as opposed to e.g. simply swapping the detectors every three-or-so years, has more than the slightest value added, to which I am extremely skeptical.

For instance, this particular company dictates a yearly date with short notice (around a week) and allows one dictated back-up date with (this year) six days’ notice. At least the back-up date had a two-hour interval (12:15–14:15). For many, the time of day, length of interval, and a bit of a commute might well mean that half the work-day is gone. For someone with a longer commute, it might take out an entire day—in extreme cases, an entire week!*

*I have repeatedly done weekend commutes over very long distances, e.g. Düsseldorf–Munich. The current date was a Tuesday, implying that I would have had no realistic choice but to miss both Monday and Tuesday. With five-or-so hours of travel in each direction (main station to main station, not including “local” travel, not including time to deal with hotels, whatnot), I might then have been better off foregoing the entire week. Had the date been on a Wednesday, I more or less would have had to. If the lost time is not enough, consider the considerable travel costs relative the smaller amount of billable hours per travel.

Last year, at least, some actual work was done in that the smoke-detectors were swapped, but this is apparently not a yearly task. (I have owned the apartment for longer, but in prior years various factors have lead to no service at all taking place, including one case of my being entirely oblivious to the dictated dates as I did not occupy the apartment and one case of the service company simply not showing up on their own dictated date. But, apparently, the legal mandate extends even to uninhabited apartments.)

A much saner system would, as in the past, leave smoke-detectors to the discretion of those actually living in the apartments. Barring that, a system where a service company replaces them every X years and the inhabitants are simply mandated to confirm that “we pressed the buttons and a painfully loud noise followed” once a year, would be much better. Barring that, some better solution of date handling must be found (some variations are mentioned in [1].)

Excursion on opportunity costs:
The opportunity costs do not just involve time and money, but can also include lives—and I am far from convinced that this mandated yearly check leads to a net-savings in lives. For the check to bring value, we have to assume that the batteries run out (or some other problem occurs) between changes, that the inhabitants do not voluntarily make tests, that a fire actually does occur, and that the circumstances are such that the smoke-detectors actually would have saved lives in that fire. (Which they would not have e.g. if a crucial exit was blocked, if the fire was too small, or if the fire was discovered by someone awake before the smoke-detectors triggered—and I do suspect that most fires take place in the day time.) How many lives this will be per year, I cannot judge, but it will not be many—it might even be none in a typical year. Against this we have to measure deaths caused by the checks, e.g. through unnecessary traffic accidents due to travel by testers or inhabitants, increased stress at work,* negative effects through extra costs,* and similar. Here, too, I cannot judge the number of lives, except that it will be a low number. The relevant question is, will it be a higher or lower number? Here I would strongly suspect a higher number …

*Looking at aggregates over sufficiently many humans such factors are relevant, even if they are highly unlikely in any given case (and far less spectacular than a car crash).

Right now, there is also the whole COVID-thing to worry about. Considering how much else has been banned in wild panic, I find it inconsistent that the comparatively high-risk task of having service staff move from apartment to apartment and contact with stranger after stranger has not been banned. This, however, is likelier to be an issue with the Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey approach to policy than with the current topic.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 28, 2020 at 10:19 am

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