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.

Recently, as I was entering John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., the building’s fire alarm began to sound. At the time of the event (around 5:30 p.m.), there must have been close to 1,000 people inside. However, as far as I could tell, besides myself there was only one woman who departed from Terminal B.

The alarm probably sounded for 15 minutes and yet there was no mass of humanity gathering outside. In fact, operations appeared to be normal, with the exception of the flashing strobes and temporal code 3 coming from the notification appliances. A single fire engine from the Orange County Fire Authority was dispatched to the facility. When I noticed the firefighters were departing I asked if it was safe to enter, which they said it was. The cause of the alarm was construction near a smoke detector.

In another incident toward the end of November and during a broadcast of the “NBC Nightly News,” the fire alarm went off at the 30 Rockefeller Center Building that the network uses in part for its New York studios. Anchor Brian Williams continued to broadcast the news, and offered an on-air apology for the fire alarm going off in the background. This can be viewed here.

Research shows people will wait for a second verification that an alarm is “real” before leaving a building. Indications of a real fire alarm would be things such as smelling smoke, or seeing smoke, flames or other people leaving the building. On the occasions where I have been in a building in which the fire alarm system has activated, even I have thought, “Is this a real alarm?” In two cases, I have been in a building in which the alarm was from an actual fire, both times being hotels.

Fires do occur. Fire alarm systems do detect fires and they do provide notification to individuals within the building to take heed and evacuate. The problem is that fire alarms can also be false. This could be due to a building contractor not having smoke detectors removed for service prior to construction, sprinkler contractors or facility personnel failing to notify a supervising station prior to working on a sprinkler system, manual stations being pulled for no reason, or a host of other causes. It’s time for us to face this music and sing a different tune.

Trade Targeting Unwanted Alarms

The number of unwanted alarms has become a major topic within the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). During the proposal and comment cycle for the 2013 edition of NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, IAFC submitted a number of proposals and comments in an effort to reduce the number of unwanted alarms. It is the position of the chiefs that responding to the fire alarm activations are a drain on vital resources, and places both firefighters and the public at risk with engines going Code 3 to an alarm.

While the majority of these proposed changes to NFPA 72 were not accepted by the technical committees that received them, several were pushed through.

The proposal that raised the most controversy dealt with allowing a supervising station to verify an alarm signal from a commercial location within 90 seconds of receipt. This would be similar to the allowance now within NFPA 72 for single-family dwellings. The Technical Committee for Supervising Stations, along with representatives from IAFC, hammered out a compromise that will allow local jurisdictions to “opt in” for verification.

Last summer the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) research foundation held a summit co-sponsored by IAFC and the U.S. Fire Administration on the reduction of unwanted alarms. Also participating in the meeting were the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA), Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) and Electronic Security Association (ESA). A day was spent in discussions on steps that can and should be taken for the reduction of unwanted alarms. A follow-up summit is being contemplated for later this year.

While alarm verification may reduce some unwanted alarms, the provisions found within NFPA 72, when followed, will reduce these sorts of alarms. While this short article cannot be a complete tutorial for those requirements, I have included a sidebar that lists critical steps for reducing unwanted alarms.

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