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Cut false fire alarms

31 May 2016

Throughout the world there’s a problem with false alarms from automatic fire detection systems. In the UK this problem has come further under the spotlight because of the Localism Bill which, with some caveats, gives fire and rescue authorities the right to charge for attendance. HSM asks the Fire Industry Association (FIA) what steps can be taken to minimise this issue.

London Fire Brigade announced in January 2014 that it was to start charging businesses for call outs if they attend more than ten false alarms in a 12 month period. Indeed, it issued 100+ invoices within the first 120 days of the new regime.

However, it’s not all bad news as official UK government figures show that there has been a steady decline in false alarm numbers over the past 10 years - and this against the background of ever more systems being installed. Nevertheless, everybody agrees that false alarms are a waste of the Fire & Rescue Services’ and the users’ time, let alone the money that is involved.

The false alarms problem is further compounded by the absence of a single automatic fire alarm (AFA) Fire & Rescue Service attendance policy in England. This lack of consistency makes it difficult for both end users and fire alarm maintenance companies, whereas in Scotland there is one policy - and this has been further reinforced by the setting up of a single fire service. Currently in England only one Shire Fire & Rescue Service attends all AFA signals and that’s Buckinghamshire.

The FIA advises that you check your fire risk assessment and consult your local fire service if you live anywhere else in England.

With increasing cuts to Fire & Rescue Services, the FIA is driving awareness with its ‘Cut False Alarms Costs!’ campaign, which explains what false alarms are, plus how to manage and reduce them.

Where to start

Realise that there is a problem. False alarms are often caused by poor building management, fire alarm system design or maintenance:

  • Poor building management – i.e. when contractors are allowed to undertake work without precautions to reduce the risk of false alarms
  • Poor fire system design - a kitchen with a smoke detector installed
  • Poor maintenance – an inadequately maintained smoke detector can become over-sensitive.

Incidents of false alarms should be recorded in a logbook to help organise the information. In the UK, BS 5839-1 (the British Standard, which is considered best practice) recommends the following four categories:

  • Unwanted alarms - Burning toast or steam that a fire detector mistakes for a real fire
  • Equipment false alarms - An alarm generated by a piece of faulty equipment
  • Malicious false alarms - Deliberately breaking of a manual call point
  • False alarms with good intent - Someone smelling smoke or sensing a possible fire.

It’s important to remember that responsible persons (ie employers or building owners) are legally obliged to keep a record of fire safety events, so a log book is the best way to do this. Failing to keep the log book up-to-date or including false information is also a breach of fire regulations, according to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

Smoke detectors

False alarms triggered by smoke detectors could be caused by cooking or burning toast; insects; welding or soldering; steam, dust and aerosols; candles and open fires, or lack of maintenance.

Heat detectors

Heat detectors tend to be less prone to false alarm signals and are generally used in areas where smoke alarms will be too sensitive such as kitchens. They are set to allow for expected temperature levels and will trigger an alarm if the temperature goes above that level.

Manual call points (MCPs)

MCPs don’t usually cause false alarms due to faulty equipment. However, they may be vulnerable to deliberate or accidental activation, so consider fitting protective covers which must be lifted before operation of the call point.

You could use a staff alarm, which filters unwanted alarms. If an alarm sounds from an automatic fire detector, the general alarm signal is delayed, allowing only certain trained staff in the premises to investigate before evacuation.

Managing your building

If you have a problem with persistent false alarms, set a target number to try not to exceed and aim to drive that down to zero. All incidents of false alarms should be investigated and recorded to establish the cause. The causes should then be shared with staff so that they are aware of the problem and know how to avoid them.

There are many solutions to reduce false alarms, and the Fire Industry Association has lots of useful advice and guidance to help manage false fire alarms. For further advice and downloads visit http://www.fia.uk.com/cut-false-alarm-costs.html, or search ‘fire industry association’ and click ‘Cut False Alarms’ on the website.