This paper surveys current work on the design of alarms for anesthesia environments and notes some of the problems arising from the need to interpret alarms in context. Anesthetists' responses to audible alarms in the operating room were observed across four types of surgical procedure (laparoscopic, arthroscopic, cardiac, and intracranial) and across three phases of a procedure (induction, maintenance, and emergence). Alarms were classified as (a) requiring a corrective response, (b) being the intended result of a decision, (c) being ignored as a nuisance alarm, or (d) functioning as a reminder. Results revealed strong effects of the type of procedure and phase of procedure on the number and rate of audible alarms. Some alarms were relatively confined to specific phases; others were seen across phases, and responses differed according to phase. These results were interpreted in light of their significance for the development of effective alarm systems. Actual or potential applications of this research include the design of alarm systems that are more informative and more sensitive to operative context than are current systems.