What are false alarms and why are they a problem?
It is perhaps a misconception that false alarms are simply an annoyance or inconvenience. In reality they impact considerably on the cost of our service provision to the rate payer, the prosperity of commerce and more importantly, the safety of the public.
There are three types of false alarms:
- Malicious (or hoax) where a call is made in the knowledge that there is no fire
- Unwanted fire signals from fire alarm and fire detection systems, where alarms operate due to a mechanical or electrical fault, or false activation by non-fire conditions (e.g. cooking fumes, dust, cigarette smoke)
- Good intent where a call to the fire and rescue service is made in the mistaken belief that a fire has occurred e.g. a smell of smoke from a bonfire
The National Fire Chief's Council (NFCC) have produced this short video explaining what a false alarm is, why we need to reduce them, and how you can do this within your business premises:
VIDEO: NFCC Reducing false alarms in the workplace
What are the impacts of false alarms?
- Disruption of business (downtime, time wasted, loss of business and theft)
- Erodes confidence in the value and reliability of Automatic Fire Alarm (AFA) systems and discourages people from taking these systems seriously
- False alarms unnecessarily transmitted to Alarm Receiving Centres impacts on their resources. Whilst dealing with false alarm alerts, operators are unavailable to deal with real emergencies.
- Diverting essential services from emergencies (putting life and property at risk).
- Cost to business of On-Call fire fighters being released.
- Unnecessary risk to crew & public whilst responding (accidents).
- Disruption to arson reduction, prevention, community safety (education, domestic smoke alarm fitting) & business support activities.
- Disruption to training of operational personnel.
- Impact on the environment of unnecessary appliance movements (noise, air and traffic pollution).
- Drain on public finances.
- The impact on Responsible Persons (RP) where persistent mismanagement of fire alarm signals has resulted in withdrawal of AFA attendance.
- Financial impact on premises where FRS apply charging for attending false alarms.
Is there an answer?
We have developed, and are continuing to introduce, a series of strategies to reduce the number of false alarm calls we receive. This includes risk assessing those Automatic Fire Alarms we attend, grading the response as to whether the Fire Engine will respond under emergency blue light conditions, or at road speed. We also monitor those premises which have repeat false alarms, working with them to reduce the impact of their disruption,
We do not want to discourage people from making a 999 call or raising the alarm to warn others if they genuinely believe that there is a fire. With your help, we want to reduce the number of false calls.
Malicious or hoax calls
We operate a call challenging policy that has dramatically reduced the number of malicious calls we attend. The making of hoax calls is a criminal offence and we do not hesitate to refer such matters to the police for further investigation in appropriate circumstances. In some cases, particularly with children and young people, we operate a counselling service to teach them about the consequences of their behaviour.
Unwanted fire signals from automatic fire alarm (AFA) systems
By far the biggest problem we face is the number of false alarm calls we receive from automatic fire alarm and fire detection systems. Generally the causes of these unwanted activations fall into two broad categories.
Faulty equipment alarms
Perhaps the most serious of the categories – and the one where fast action can have the biggest potential impact – is an alarm caused by faulty equipment. Reducing false alarms starts at the design stage. Every effort should be made to design the likelihood of false alarms out of an installation, with all necessary information recorded and shared with the customer.
A proper service and maintenance programme is essential to ensure the fire alarm and detection system works when it is needed most. British Standards recommend that the number of service visits per annum should be a minimum of twice a year (with the actual number dictated by a suitable and sufficient risk assessment).
Owners of these systems must ensure that the engineers who service their fire alarm systems are competent to do so.
False activation by non-fire conditions
Next to faulty equipment, these activations produce the second largest number of false alarms. Common causes include:
- Cooking fumes (due to cooking in inappropriate areas, or incorrectly sited detector heads)
- Dust from work or maintenance processes (during alterations, hot work with insufficient control measures)
- Insufficient or incorrect training (testing fire alarm systems without notifying monitoring centres, work on systems without first isolating them)
We consider it to be the duty of the responsible person to ensure that their fire alarm and fire detection systems are correctly maintained by a competent person, and any systems that continue to give false activations are indicative of a failure in the management of the 'preventative and protective measures' required by law.
In September 2004, the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) published proposals for minimising the very significant problems of calls to remotely monitored fire alarm systems. The Fire and Rescue Service Framework document 2005-2006 indicates the Government's desire that we give consideration to the adoption of the CFOA policy, and we will be including these measures in our future efforts.
False alarms caused by good intent
We do not want to discourage anyone from making an emergency 999 call or operating a fire alarm, if they genuinely believe there is a fire. We advise that anyone who is carrying out an activity that may give someone else cause to think a fire has started should inform the necessary people of their activity.
This may include:
- Informing the fire and rescue service that they are burning rubbish
- Informing managers or occupants of a building that they are carrying out hot work
What to do if your business has a false alarm?
- Firstly, what was the cause of the false alarm? Was it due to faulty equipment? the environment or a work activity which may need reviewing?
- Did any evacuation go ahead as per evacuation drills? Did everyone hear the alarm and follow the premises fire emergency action plan?
- Did a methodical check of the cause of the alarm take place before contacting the Fire Service? If you have an automatic fire alarm system which connects to an alarm receiving centre to call the Fire Service, did they contact you, could you have made the Fire Service aware of alarms known to be false?
- Any investigation of the cause of a Fire alarm should consider the safety of the person checking the alarm and actions on discovery of signs of fire e.g. heat, smoke, flames
- Record the false alarm in your log book and include any changes made to reduce causes of future false alarms
- Review your fire risk assessment and staff training.