On Her Own

Personal alarms: will they make you safer?

Personal alarms are perennially popular and have been making a comeback as a personal safety device. The idea is that by using a device to make very loud noises, the attacker will be scared off. Perhaps they will want to get away from the disorienting and painful sounds, or they will want to avoid the attention that will surely be attracted. Putting aside the fact that if the noise is enough to cause physical discomfort to the bad guy, it will surely be at least as unpleasant to the defender, personal alarms are attractive because they are generally reasonably priced, easy to carry and use, and don’t come with the risk of causing real injury to the wrong person. At the very least, the idea is that they might help and they certainly can’t hurt. That may be true, but it’s important to be realistic about how much they might actually help so that you don’t end up putting too much faith in something that might only be a talisman. So in the tradition of OHO – do personal alarms make you feel safe or be safe?

While some personal alarms have strobe lights or can connect to your phone to call a trusted contact or the police, the primary way they work is by being loud. It’s common for alarms to be advertised as ranging from 120-140 decibels – equivalent to anything from a jet plane at take-off to a gunshot, depending on the source you consult. Regardless, those levels are generally considered above where physical pain can be caused by the noise, and certainly well into where permanent hearing damage can occur, especially without hearing protection. Even if the cheap electronics used in constructing personal alarms might not actually meet the stated decibel levels, they’re still normally quite loud to the naked ear. One might even question whether it would actually be good for them to be as loud as advertised, since you as the defender would likewise suffer the pain, disorientation, and long-term hearing loss that could result if you actually deployed one. You may decide that risk is worthwhile, when weighed against the possibility of an attacker doing worse to you, but there are reliable options that do not rely on you suffering the same as your attacker and in any case, pain compliance on its own is always unreliable. The attacker may not be dissuaded by the simple presence of the alarm noise, even if it hurts them to stay near the device. Certain sources recommend activating the alarm, dropping it, and running away. The problem there, of course, is that running away may not be an option because of the surroundings or because the attacker has already grabbed you, and that even if it is, merely making lots of noise isn’t going to hide your retreat. Your attacker will still be able to follow you and continue trying to hurt you.

The argument for personal alarms is often that it’s not that they’re going to affect the attacker directly, but that they will attract attention and help. Either the threat of a rescuer showing up or one actually arriving is theorized to dissuade the bad guy or bring aid to physically stop them. While some of these incidents happen in isolated transition spaces without many people around, some also happen in areas that already have many people around or are already clearly under video surveillance. If the former, it certainly seems like a good idea to start calling in the calvary as soon as possible after an attack starts, especially because it may take some time for them to arrive (although if you’ve left and the bad guy has followed, question how much help that might be). A major question is, however, whether anyone who hears the alarm will be willing to insert themselves into the situation. There are many reasons that a bystander might not, from simply not wanting to get involved in something that isn’t obviously their problem to not wanting to get hurt themselves. We see it all the time with car alarms, and personal alarms are no different. Whether they are right or wrong is immaterial when you are in the midst of violence. The result is the same: even if someone sees the assault happening, perhaps because of the alarm, they won’t necessarily do anything about it. And bad guys know that, or may be willing to stick around until and unless someone shows up to find out. If the attack is in a place where there are already potential witnesses present, making it clear that you are being assaulted might make your attacker hesitate. After all, just because people are there doesn’t mean they are paying attention, so your attacker might decide that too much attention is not what they want. However, if they are already willing to act against you with others present, the risk of being identifiable and the shame of being witnessed may be no deterrent at all.

Say you and the attacker are still in the vicinity of an activated alarm and a rescuer decides to show up and intervene anyway. Do you want to stake your life on whether a stranger will be effective in stopping an attack? They may be game, but that doesn’t mean they have the right skills. It’s a difficult problem, inserting yourself into a fight. Simply yelling at the wrongdoer may not be enough, and pulling them off may not be possible. Stopping an attacker might require going violently hands-on, with the added complication of avoiding hurting the victim. As a defender, relying on someone to get involved and being able to help might mean you have only added a little hope and a lot of disappointment to your defense strategy. If you have your own skills and tools to defend yourself in the meantime, and are only using the personal alarm to perhaps get help on the way faster, that might be a different matter. If that’s what you’re thinking, though, then you also need to think about whether deploying the personal alarm may detract from your ability to use something like pepper spray instead. Many of the combination devices do none of their multiple functions well, and compromising on a tool that can be more immediately and reliably effective is probably not a good idea. There’s also the potential permanent harm to you and to innocent bystanders – or helpful rescuers – that can result from using a personal alarm, beyond the relatively mild aftereffects that can result from incidental pepper spray exposure, and one that will absolutely affect you unlike tools like guns or knives being potentially but not definitely turned on you.

Because personal alarms are low cost and low effort in many ways, it may seem like having one is worthwhile because it could help and it seems harmless enough otherwise. The problem is that it might not do anything at all, and in the process either hurt you directly or prevent or discourage you from learning and using other, more effective self-defense strategies. If you still want to carry one anyway, it’s important that you continue to explore additional options because the odds of the personal alarm alone effectively stopping an attack are quite low. They might make you feel better, but you deserve actual safety, not hoped-for safety.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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