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False alarms

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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

What are the problems?

Is it a real fire?

It is clear that too many false alarms can prejudice the safety of occupants, who may not react correctly when the system responds to a real fire if they have experienced a number of false alarms.

Cost to commerce

The latest figures published by the government estimate that the cost of false alarms in the UK is around £1 billion a year. Much of this cost is borne by commerce from lost production and interruptions to business.

Cost to payers of Council Tax

The cost of sending fire engines to false alarms comes out of your pockets. If a fire engine is attending a false alarm, it is not available to respond to a real fire. False alarms put our communities at risk.

Danger to other road users

Any fire call received by Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service is attended by fire engines responding under 'blues and twos (i.e with lights and sirens). Although our drivers are trained to the highest standard, other road users are unnecessarily exposed to increased danger at these times.

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. 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.

These are:

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