"Alarm fatigue": is the Facoder a solution?

A recent Boston Globe story related how a patient died at Mass General because various monitors were either beeping and unheeded, or had been turned off.

When alarms are going off constantly for non-critical matters, you become desensitized to them, or even interfere with their function just to have some peace and quiet.  Then, when the real critical matter comes up, you ignore it, and your patient dies, or the reactor overheats, or the train goes through a switch and crashes.

To improve things, you'd have to decide ahead of time which things are critical, and which aren't, and make sure the alarms reflected this priority.  Only a few problems would qualify: the mind can't pay attention to more than a couple of things at once.  You'd need to make sure less-critical but still important problems get bumped up for investigation periodically.  But if one of those "non-critical" problems then causes a death, you, the alarm designer, are in real trouble. And you know that somewhere, at some time, that will happen. What really matters is not what makes sense, but what you can be sued for.

The problem, however, was solved years ago by David E. H. Jones, who wrote a wonderful column for New Scientist called "Daedalus", about bizarre yet plausible devices created by a company called DREADCO.  I have a collection of these columns, long out of print, called The Inventions of Daedalus, which includes a column on the Facoder, from 1973. My copy is not inscribed, but I remember it being given to me by my old friend Dave Platt, with whom I have recently reconnected.  Thanks, Dave!

Here's the principle of the facoder.

Unless they have some autism-spectrum disorder people respond to human faces with subtlety and complexity. They instantly gauge moods, even with limited cues. Even simple caricature faces can convey these emotions.

Using the example of a control panel for a complex chemical plant, Daedalus proposed a "facoder": a display of schematic faces, instead of dials or other readouts. As a specific system started to malfunction, the face would look more and more alarmed, instantly attracting the attention of the monitoring engineer. The entire mood of the plant could be gauged with a quick glance across the display, much as a performer gauges the mood of an audience (this is my analogy, not Daedalus's, BTW). A bank of happy faces would be the reward of good management.

The same thing could be installed a a nurse's station, with faces standing in  for patient vital signs. In a hospital setting, unlike the chemical plant or nuclear power plant, these would be competing with real patient faces, so it would have to be used with due consideration for the human desire for emotional shortcuts.

I'm actually surprised some version of the facoder hasn't come to pass.  I think its time has come.