Reducing false alarms

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In the year 2005/06 Shropshire fire crews were called to 1928* false alarms out of a total of 4,518 'fire' calls.

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What are they 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 of Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin!

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 etc)
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
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So what are the problems?

  1. 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. Complacency can be a very dangerous thing at the best of times, but complacency that leads to ignoring an alarm simply because it is highly unlikely to be genuine could be quite literally fatal.

  2. 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.

  3. Cost to Shropshire council tax payers

    Shropshire is predominantly a rural area, and we use retained duty system (part time) firefighters to respond to fire calls over large parts of the county. The approximate cost to the people of Shropshire is £172/call, and with 1,928 turnouts to false alarms in 2005/06, this suggests that the cost to council tax payers is in excess of £330,000.

    So, the cost of sending fire engines to false alarms comes out of your pockets

    If a fire engine is at a false alarm, it is not available to respond to a real fire. False alarms put our communities at risk!

  4. Danger to other road users

    Any fire call received by Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service is attend by fire engines responding under 'blues and twos', and although our drivers are trained to the highest standard, other road users are unnecessarily exposed to increased danger at these times.

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Is there an answer?

The simple answer is 'Yes there is'.

In the year 2005/06, your fire and rescue service attended:

  • 1166 Unwanted fire alarms
  • 583 Good intent calls
  • 179 Malicious or hoax calls
  • This is out of a total of 4,518 'fire' calls

We have developed, and are continuing to introduce, a series of strategies to reduce the number of false alarm calls we receive. Clearly we do not want to discourage people from making a '999' call to us, or raising the alarm to warn others, if they genuinely believe that there is a fire, but there are a number of things that can be done to reduce them.

With your help, we do want to achieve continuing reductions in calls that are false.

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Malicious or hoax calls

We operate a call challenging policy which has dramatically reduced the number of malicious calls we attend. During 2005/06, we received 477 such calls, and our trained control room staff successfully challenged 298, meaning that no attendance was made.

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, Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service operate a counselling service to teach them about the consequences of their behaviour. We accept referrals from parents, teachers and other agencies, and anyone wishing to take advantage of our highly skilled intervention scheme should contact us on 01743 260 260.

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Unwanted fire signals from Automatic Fire Alarm 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, and 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.

Article 18 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO) requires the Responsible Person to "appoint one or more competent persons to assist in undertaking the preventative and protective measures". Where the protective measures include a fire alarm and fire detection system, 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).

Even the best-installed, best-in-class equipment, of course, deteriorates over time, but this risk and the likelihood of failure can be minimised with a professional specialist service and maintenance agreement that will extend the overall life expectancy of the equipment, and reduce the costs associated with false alarms.

Owners of these systems must ensure that the engineers they appoint to service their fire alarm systems are competent to do so, and our advice sheet AS 3/2006 gives further details on choosing a competent person.

False activation by non-fire conditions

Next to faulty equipment, these activations produce the second largest number of false alarms. Common amongst the causes are:

  • Cooking fumes (cooking taking place 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)

Under the RRO, 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 minimizing the very significant problems of calls to remotely monitored fire alarm systems. The Fire and Rescue Service Framework document 2005-2006 indicates the governments desire that we give consideration to the adoption of the CFOA policy, and we will be including these measures in our future efforts.

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Call Challenge for known false alarms

Despite good reductions in recent years, Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service continues to attend high numbers of calls where the cause can clearly be attributed to known false alarms such as:

  • failures to isolate a fire alarm system during testing
  • poor management of contractors and their activities
  • fumes from cooking
  • dust and many other reasons

We also suffer a large number of repeat calls from a small number of premises across the county, many of which are due to obvious and recognisable false alarms. In all cases, we will always respond as if the emergency was a real fire, increasing the risk to other road users and our crews, depleting our fire cover in that area for the period of the attendance and costing the council tax payer in excess of £240 per appliance for every turnout.

To enable us to address this growing problem, we are seeking the assistance of the Responsible Person at the premises to ensure that once the emergency plan has been carried out (evacuation takes place, role calls carried out etc), a safe investigation is implemented to try an identify the cause of the activation. If your fire alarm system is remotely monitored, or a call has been made using the public '999/112' facility (purely in response to the initial activation), we will be en route under emergency conditions, therefore we need to be informed that a known false alarm has occurred. This should be done again using '999/112' to ensure a rapid connection to our emergency fire control staff.

It is essential not to put persons at risk when carrying out your investigation into the cause, which may necessitate additional staff training into the correct techniques to be used to identify the area of activation, how to interpret the fire alarm panel read-out, opening doors and so on. Finally, if there is any doubt as to the cause of the activation, or a real fire is discovered, please contact us via '999/112' to provide further information for our responding crews.

It does not matter how many calls we receive confirming a fire, as often each caller is able to add to the information each time.

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False Alarms '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 do, however, advise that anyone who is carrying out an activity that may give someone cause to think a fire has started, to 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

Further information

Business Fire Safety

Telephone: 01743 260 260
Email: businessfiresafety [at] shropshirefire [dot] gov [dot] uk