Fire Alarm Activation AGAIN?

In the fire service we have all had those frequent flyer calls. Fire alarm activations are just one of those that can become the ones we think holy crap here we go again. This can make the fire company begin to think that it’s just another false or nuisance alarm and not treat it as a potential early detection of a real fire situation. Many times we become very complacent and may


not treat these situations with the same sense of urgency and in some cases respond in a manner that causes injury or cost factors to the fire department due to unnecessary accidents while en route to the call. So what can we do to help prevent these unnecessary accidents or help to keep our sense of urgency on these calls that seem to be redundant? We often see false or nuisance alarms a lot in the winter in older buildings with dated fire alarm systems, at sites under building renovation or at newly constructed buildings.

So what is the difference in a nuisance alarm and a false alarm? A nuisance alarm is simply an alarm triggered by false information or a malfunction in the system while a false alarm is an alarm that is set off and a signal sent when it is not intended to evacuate a building in the event of a fire. False alarms can be caused in many ways, especially during construction and/or renovation projects. The contractors working on the site may fail to put the system in test while doing hot or dusty work in areas that have smoke detection. Sprinkler contractors can be working on their system setting off water flow. Demolition contractors can cut into pipes containing fire alarm wiring causing alarms. Often times these false alarms are due to nothing but human error in not following the proper procedure to ensure not to call the fire department or doing work thinking it won’t take but a minute I won’t set off the fire alarm. Another factor that we often see in the winter is water flow from freezing sprinkler pipes. Many times at educational facilities we see students, especially in the college environment, causing these alarms intentionally. In most cases they are real fire alarms which are caused to benefit the student in some way shape or form to get out of a test or release class early so on and so forth. Some of the things seen are pulling of a manual pull station, lighting paper stuffed into a smoke detector, lighting a message board on fire along with many other creative ways to set off a fire alarm. We also see these alarms in day care or elementary school environments where the children are simply curious of what the red box on the wall is and pull it just because. Many times a water hammer has caused water flow alarms which came from the retard not being set or being worn out on the water flow switch causing the alarm. Of course with the fire department all we know most of the time is that a fire alarm has been activated, although with newer systems often times we know what has caused the alarm. Regardless of the type of alarm or frequency at a particular address we need to treat them all as the real thing.

With that in mind we need to respond in a way that is safe and ensures the safety of the crew in the responding apparatus.  As with all of our calls we are responding to we are responding to something that we didn’t cause and are going to things with people or property in need. If we don’t get there safe we are doing an injustice to the tax payers costing them unnecessary money and not getting the needed help to our customer. Good customer service for us is always getting to the incident regardless of the severity in a timely and safe manner and performing our duties to the best of our abilities and to assist with delivering the best possible outcome in an often bad situation.

So this brings up a question of response in a fire situation or a medical emergency where we respond to these calls running emergency traffic lights and sirens. I think it would be a good idea for responding agencies to review if in the situation of fire alarms does this type of call need to be ran emergency traffic seeing in most cases the agency responding is within minutes of the facility calling for the fire department. We know that a fire doubles in size every 30 seconds to one minute. Newer fire alarm technology installed and systems being upgraded, along with the percentage of actual fire alarms result in an actual fire situation being around two percent of all fire alarm activations. New technology will report individual alarms so in the case of an actual fire the alarm company may receive multiple alarms in which the responding fire companies could then step up to emergency traffic. With this being a possible response guide for fire alarm activations we could possibly reduce the risk of a fire apparatus being involved in an accident on the way to the incident and also reduce the risk of injury or death to the responding firefighters. It costs taxpayers money every time a fire alarm is activated whether it is false or in the event of an actual fire.

Many times with the case of false alarms, especially the ones that are malicious, the building occupants tend to begin to ignore or not to take the alarm seriously. This could ultimately lead to injuries or deaths due to them not responding properly and not evacuating the building when the fire alarm is activated. Anytime you have things that continue to happen over and over with no real reason or for malicious intent, people tend to disregard and not to rely on the system that is installed and tested to protect their life.

Everyone can work together to ensure that false and nuisance alarms are reduced or possibly eliminated altogether. The building owner can make sure the building is properly maintained and the fire alarm system is tested annually replacing any aging or potential parts that could result in a false or nuisance alarm. The contractors doing new construction or renovations to existing buildings can make sure to follow proper procedures when putting the fire alarm system in test mode and also make sure all contractors doing work are aware of the procedures when working on the construction. Proper covering or removal of smoke detectors during dusty or hot work, proper disabling of the water flow switches along with instructions to demolition crews to make sure to not demolish something if they do not know what it is. The fire department or the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) can help to reduce this by continuing to issue fines for false alarms after a set number have been received from the same location.

False and nuisance alarms can be reduced with a slight chance of elimination by coordination between all of the above mentioned entities which reduces the cost associated not only with fire department response but also the cost of down time to the businesses that may be directly impacted by the false or nuisance alarms. Like mentioned above a fire doubles in size every 30 seconds to one minute, it may not be a good practice to reduce the response to fire alarm activations to non-emergency knowing that there is always a chance of the fire alarm resulting in an actual fire situation.

Fire alarm systems are installed to help in the early detection of fire and to evacuate the building occupants prior to the building becoming untenable, this along with the fire suppression systems being in place to assist in the extinguishment of a fire can do nothing but help to reduce the risk of an actual fire becoming out of control. We must all work together to make sure these systems are properly maintained and properly tested annually for proper operation in the event that it is needed in an actual fire situation. This all begins with the building owner in the design process of the building and continues to the building owner through the life of the building. Checks and balances with other agencies can only assure that the building occupants and responding fire personnel are safe in the event of any fire alarm activation. 

Carl Thompson has served as a volunteer firefighter since 1992 and is currently deputy chief at South Iredell Fire Rescue in Mooresville, N.C. He has been employed with SimplexGrinnell for the past 26 years and is a NICET (National Institute for the Certification in Engineering Technologies) Level IV in Fire Alarm Systems and an Operations Technician which programs and inspects fire alarm systems. Thompson is a current graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the Fire Protection and Administration with a tentative graduation date of December 2017.

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