LAS VEGAS — As budget-strapped fire departments across the nation grapple with high false dispatch rates, a mounting effort by life-safety professionals and other stakeholders has taken root to crack the difficult and multifaceted issue of unwanted fire alarms.
According to a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report, U.S. fire departments responded to more than 2.1 million false alarms in 2010, compared to about 482,000 actual structure fires in the same period. The unwanted calls included false alarms reported by the public as well as automatic fire alarm systems.
The continuing plague of false alarms is adversely affecting not only fire departments and the firefighters themselves, but it can be hugely disruptive to businesses and puts lives in danger, Mary Ahrens, manager of fire analysis services at NFPA, tells SSI.
“We have several dangers from unwanted alarms. Foremost is complacency. A fire goes off in a commercial building and nobody moves,” she says. “How much time is lost because people are just assuming it’s an unwanted alarm? By the time that people are convinced it is something that needs to be taken seriously, you have the potential for real growth [and the spread of fire].”
Combatting unwanted alarms was a special focus at the NFPA’s annual conference and exhibition, held June 11-14 in Las Vegas. Among the happenings, members of NFPA technical committees assembled to deliberate proposed changes to the 2013 edition of NFPA 72. Of particular emphasis were unwanted alarms in commercial buildings. Among proposed changes in the code is allowing for a verification of a fire alarm signal before a fire department responds to the scene.
According to NFPA, the change is a result of a series of discussions with fire officials on how NFPA 72 should handle the persistent burden of unwanted alarms. The NFPA recruited members of the fire service to work in the “development of a standardized solution addressing the problem of commercial building alarms where there is no working fire,” according to the NFPA Web site.
During the NFPA conference, Ahrens and other NFPA subject matter experts conducted a presentation titled, “How the Requirements of NFPA 72 Help Address Unwanted Alarms.” It was noted by Lee Richardson, staff liaison to NFPA 72, that success will not be achieved without a concerted partnership among many stakeholders, including architects and engineers, AHJs, manufacturers, designers and installing technicians, among others.
As just one example to help foster communication and partnership, NFPA 72 encourages AHJs and designers to engage early in the planning and design phase of a fire/life-safety system. System designers and installers have an especially unique role to play in reducing nuisance alarms, Ahrens says.
“One of the approaches we are proposing is to have plan designs and installations that emphasize and look at the potential triggers of unwanted alarms,” she says. “How are you going to address them? Can you use technology that will have multicriteria [sensors]? It’s really important that it is easy to track which detector activated, and ideally why. It is one of the things the fire service has really wanted.”
A unified approach to combatting false fire alarms got a boost last year when the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), U.S. Fire Administration and NFPA hosted the “Fire Alarm Response and Management Summit.” In a series of panels, stakeholder discussions centered on design and manufacturing, installation and maintenance practices, and other topics.
Among several summary consensus points drafted by the organizers, summit participants agreed that while existing commercial alarm systems function appropriately, “most of the challenges stem from the physical, operational or response environment in which current systems exist.”
One panel in particular emphasized that alarm companies often contend with customers that too often task inexperienced building staff with maintenance and service. And while building operators are easy scapegoats to pin the blame for false alarms, “the burden is shared by many” and caused by a “breakdown in an interrelated process,” according to the summary.
As one panelist opined, “Technology is strong, monitoring is good, but maintenance stinks.”