Fire Alarms Need to Stop Crying Wolf

It is a sad and troubling fact that many people react to fire alarms with indifference. It’s critical everyone associated with the life-safety mission put forth a committed and coordinated effort to reduce false or unwanted alarms, and in doing so restore the public’s faith in electronic fire detection.

Critical Steps for a Better Future

The changes to the way people react to a fire alarm signal will not change overnight. Public education will be required to get the word out that the alarm signal you are hearing could legitimately indicate there is a fire within the building. Fire alarm systems are installed to provide early detection and notification so building occupants can leave while there’s still an opportunity to do so. Fires occur in buildings every day; it is not that unusual of circumstances. Human nature seems to go along the thought process that a fire could never happen in this building, so it must be false.

The fire alarm industry must work to educate the public that when you hear a fire alarm, it is time to leave the building. But before this education will resonate, the fire alarm industry and systems integrators must strive to design, install and maintain fire alarm systems that are not prone to unwanted alarms.

In addition to new systems, efforts must be made to decrease unwanted alarms from existing systems. This would include but not be limited to testing in accordance with NFPA 72, replacement of devices, appliances, wiring and components, and the possible relocation of detection based on the existing environment within the protected premises.

Technology has changed through the years, so the system types installed today are not the same as those installed 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Smoke detectors are less prone to unwanted alarms, but if installed incorrectly or in an environment that would be hostile to the detector, false alarms will still occur.

Building owners, various service providers and occupants must also take steps so as not to generate an unwanted alarm. The alarm that occurred at the John Wayne Airport could have and should have been prevented by having the smoke detector(s) in the area of construction temporarily removed from service. Fire alarm contractors and systems integrators need to coordinate with building owners when tenant improvement work takes place. The probability of a construction-related false alarm must be reduced while at the same time not compromising protection of occupants within the building.

Our industry has an obligation to provide automatic fire alarm systems that the public will see as reliable and not have the first thought be that an alarm must be false. Fire departments are likewise obligated to treat those alarms as having a high probability of being an actual event as opposed to an unwanted activation. This will require a concerted effort over time so when an alarm is activated occupants will take notice and evacuate or relocate to a safe location. The payoff in saved lives will be priceless.

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.

8 Ways to Fight False Alarms


  • Qualified designers
  • Qualified installers
    and service personnel
  • The correct detector for the environment
  • Inspection, testing and maintenance of the system
  • Owner education
  • Adjustment of water-flow detection to account for local water surge
  • Duct detectors programmed as supervisory devices
  • Tagging of water suppression systems of who to call prior to service


Security Is Our Business, Too

For professionals who recommend, buy and install all types of electronic security equipment, a free subscription to Security Sales & Integration is like having a consultant on call. You’ll find an ideal balance of technology and business coverage, with installation tips and techniques for products and updates on how to add sales to your bottom line.

A free subscription to the #1 resource for the residential and commercial security industry will prove to be invaluable. Subscribe today!

Get Our Newsletters