As with intrusion alarms, nuisance or false alarms has been an issue for fire systems pretty much since Day 1 of this industry’s existence. Consequently, even though I have addressed the need to reduce unwanted alarms in the past it remains a vital and central topic.
This is particularly true as of this writing as several changes to NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, were promulgated by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) for the 2013 edition. While a number of their proposals were not accepted by the various technical committees, the proposal regarding alarm verification was, with a number of modifications. There was also controversy involved, which has yet to be resolved.
Proposal Promotes Verification
The language in the proposal for alarm verification for commercial fire alarm systems was based on the allowance for verification that is found within Chapter 29, Single- and Multiple-Station Alarms and Household Fire Alarm Systems:
188.8.131.52 Remote monitoring stations shall be permitted to verify alarm signals prior to reporting them to the fire service, provided that the verification process does not delay the reporting by more than 90 seconds.
A.184.108.40.206 Where 220.127.116.11, which provides for screening alarm signals to minimize response to false alarms, is to be implemented, the following should be considered:
(1) Was the verification call answered at the protected premises?
(2) Did the respondent provide proper identification?
(3) Is it necessary for the respondent to identify the cause of the alarm signal?
(4) Should the public service fire communications center be notified and advised that an alarm signal was received, including the response to the verification call, when an authorized respondent states that fire service response is not desired?
(5) Should the public service fire communications center be notified and advised that an alarm signal was received, including the response to the verification call, for all other situations, including both a hostile fire and no answer to the verification call?
(6) What other actions should be required by a standard operating procedure?
This provision allows a supervising station to make a call to the protected premise to verify if the alarm signal is for an actual fire, or from an unwanted alarm. Unwanted alarms in this case may include, but not be limited to: cooking; fireplace use; outside barbeque; shower steam; dust.
The verification call must be made within 90 seconds of the signal being received. You will note that for a single-family residence there is no requirement there be a simultaneous call to the responding authorities. This will be discussed later in this article.
New Supervisory Section Stirs Pot
The source of the controversy is with the following new section within Chapter 26, Supervising Station Alarm Systems:
26.2.2 Alarm Signal Preverification
18.104.22.168 Where alarm signal verification is required by the responsible fire department, the supervising station shall immediately notify the communications center that a fire alarm signal has been received and verification is in process.
22.214.171.124 Verification shall meet the requirements of 26.2.3.
26.2.3 Alarm Signal Verification
126.96.36.199 For applications other than those addressed under the scope of 188.8.131.52, supervising station personnel shall attempt to verify alarm signals prior to reporting them to the communication center where all the following conditions exist:
(1) Alarm signal verification is required by the responsible fire department for a specific protected premises.
(2) Documentation of the requirement for alarm signal verification is provided by the responsible fire department to the supervising station and the protected premises.
(3) If the requirement for verification changes, the responsible fire department shall notify the supervising station and the protected premises.
(4) The verification process does not take longer than 90 seconds from the time the alarm signal is received at the supervising station until the time that retransmission of the verified alarm signal is initiated.
(5) Verification of the alarm signal is received only from authorized personnel within the protected premises.
(6) Verified alarm signals are immediately retransmitted to the communications center and include information that the signal was verified at the protected premises to be an emergency.
(7) Alarm signals where verification is not conclusive are immediately retransmitted to the communications center.
(8) Alarm signals that are verified as nuisance alarms are not dispatched and are handled in accordance with 184.108.40.206.
220.127.116.11 Alarm signals not reported to the communications center shall be reported to the responsible fire department in a manner and at a frequency specified by the responsible fire department.
A Closer Look at What Is Called for
It is first important to notice that alarm verification may only be used if the fire department allows its use. This is the “opt-in” requirement that was added during the comment cycle. The original language was that the fire department had to “opt-out” if they did not wish alarm verification to be used within their jurisdiction.
The second point to be aware of is that under 18.104.22.168, the alarm must still be called in to the fire department’s dispatch center at the same time that the alarm verification call is being made. At the time of this call, the supervising station is to inform the dispatch center alarm verification is in progress.
Paragraph 22.214.171.124(4) requires that the verification occur within 90 seconds of the alarm signal being received. It is further required under (5) that only authorized personnel may verify an alarm. The supervising station is required under (6) and (7) to immediately retransmit to the dispatch center if the signal is an emergency or not.
If the signal is reported as an unwanted or nuisance alarm, the fire department may make a determination not to respond, or to make a reduced response. These decisions are not a part of NFPA 72.
Separating the Facts From Fiction
In reference to the points highlighted in this article’s sidebar about alarm verification concerns, I offer the following …
First, there is no delay in the dispatch, as the verification call is taking place at the same time the call to the dispatch center is being made. During testimony that was made during the recent Final Action Hearings of the International Code Council (ICC) for the International Fire Code (IFC) it was stated that by allowing alarm verification there could be a delay of up to four-and-a-half minutes. This is simply not the case.
During the proposal meeting for the IFC, it was stated by a member of the ICC Fire Code Committee that the overwhelming majority of fire deaths occur within single-family dwellings in which alarm verification is permitted. While fires do occur at commercial locations, there are very few deaths. With sadness, there have been a number of firefighter deaths within commercial properties. Whether this number would be higher if alarm verification was allowed can only be determined through scientific study.
There may be validity to questioning whether a person called at a protected premises can make an accurate determination within 90 seconds if there is an emergency event or not. It is true that the typical single-family dwelling is smaller than a commercial property, which allows for quicker assessment of the event. However, as the call to dispatch has already been made, a quick check can be made within most buildings to see what may be causing the alarm.
With the expanded use of addressable systems, the area of the alarm can be quickly determined. For high-rises and other critical structures there should be no delay in the dispatch. This, however, represents only a small percentage of the total amount of installed fire alarm systems.
As the 2013 edition of NFPA 72 is adopted throughout the country, the use of alarm verification should not be automatically ruled out. There needs to be a dialog between the alarm company/supervising station and the local fire department on the use of alarm verification within their jurisdiction. Section 126.96.36.199(2) does require the fire department to provide documentation to the supervising station on the protocols that are to be used. The development of these protocols should be a two-sided discussion.
Fire alarm verification will continue to be a lightning rod of debate throughout the industry for the foreseeable future.
Fire Alarm Verification Concerns
• Delay in the dispatch
• Can the authorized person at the protected premises be fully aware of what may have caused an alarm within 90 seconds?
• With lighter construction materials, the delay in the dispatch could allow for a flashover at the premises if there is an actual fire
• Does not address the underlying causes of unwanted alarms
Shane Clary, Ph.D., has more than 37 years of security and fire alarm industry experience. He serves on a number of NFPA technical committees, and is Vice President of Codes and Standards Compliance for Pacheco, Calif.-headquartered Bay Alarm Co.