Fireside Chat: Congress Isn’t Exempt From False Fire Alarm Activation

When used properly, these devices provide an early warning of a fire, allowing the occupants to vacate the premises before being trapped.

Fireside Chat: Congress Isn’t Exempt From False Fire Alarm Activation

Adobe Stock image by JJ Gouin.

This is an article that should not have been necessary to write. This is regarding the false activation of an alarm system when a fire is not present.

These types of activations typically occur from the activation of a manual pull station. I have seen this occur on several occasions during my time in elementary school back in the 1950s and 60s. I have also seen this occur from restless and/or unsupervised children at a restaurant or store.

But I would never expect to see this occur from an elected member of the United States House of Representatives.

Manual stations or pull boxes have been a part of fire alarm systems for a long time. Before the advancement of automatic detection, the primary means of notification of a fire within a building was through the activation of a manual station.

When used properly, these devices can and do provide an early warning of a fire, allowing the occupants to vacate the premises before possibly being trapped by smoke and/or fire.

During the last several cycles of both the International Code Council’s International Fire Code and the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 1 Fire Code there have been proposals to eliminate the use of manual stations due to the possibility of unwanted alarms.

While manual boxes have not been completely eliminated, they have been reduced in occupancies that have a complete fire sprinkler suppression system installed within.

To reduce the possibility of unwanted alarms from occurring, NFPA 72 does allow the use of covers to be placed over a pull station to possibly prevent a malicious activation. In these cases, the cover must be Listed for use with a particular make and model of the pull station. To activate the manual station, the cover must be lifted so as to gain access to the manual station.

False Alarm Activation Issues in Congress

On Saturday, Sept. 30, the House of Representatives was in session to address a possible shutdown of the U.S. government. This was a contiguous issue on both sides of the question. Various votes were being taken on the matter within the House Chamber.

For those who are reading this article who have not been to the United States Capitol, the offices of the Members of the House are located within three buildings across the street for the House side of the Capitol. These are the Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn Office Buildings.

These buildings are connected together by a series of tunnels and to the Capitol by a tunnel and a private subway system. Notification of a vote within the Chamber is through a series of bells that sound throughout the congressional office buildings and in each Members office.

A vote was called for and Congressman Jamall Bowman (D-16, N.Y.) found himself in the Cannon Office Building. While this could not possibly be the first vote that Bowman was called for while in his office, for some reason he left for the Capitol via a clearly marked emergency exit.

The exit in question is clearly marked that it is a delay exit door. Signage on the door states “Emergency Exit Only – Push Until Alarm Sounds (30 Seconds) – Door Will Open in 30 Seconds.

Bowman stated that with the door being locked he thought that by pulling the manual station the door would open. He stated that he had no idea that it would activate the building’s fire alarm system. It did, which caused an evacuation of the building and the emergency response of the District of Columbia Fire Department.

The general perception is that the Congressman pulled the manual station, fully knowing that it would active the alarm, possibly cause a delay in the vote that was occurring in the House Chamber. It is difficult for me to comprehend that any person with an average intelligence would know that a manual pull station would activate the fire alarm system within the building.

After the event, a number of “talking points” were made available to the Democratic Caucus to defuse the incident. One statement was, “The alarm going off didn’t interrupt our business on the floor in the slightest.”

This may be true, but it did require the District of Columbia Fire Department to respond Code 3 (lights and sirens) to the building, placing in possible jeopardy both the member of the responding firefighters as well as the public that was in the streets as the units responded.

Within both model fire codes there are provisions that address the false activation of a fire alarm system:

NFPA 1: 10.7.2 Persons shall not deliberately or maliciously turn in an alarm of fire when in fact that person knows that no fire exists.

International Fire Code: 401.5 A person shall not give, signal or transmit a false alarm.

There is no Congressional Exemption to these provisions.

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About the Author


Shane Clary, Ph.D., is Security Sales & Integration’s “Fire Side Chat” columnist. He 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 Pancheco, Calif.-based Bay Alarm Co.

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One response to “Fireside Chat: Congress Isn’t Exempt From False Fire Alarm Activation”

  1. Samus Aran says:

    While Mr. Bowman’s conduct was absolutely unacceptable, technically there could be a “Congressional exception” from the code provisions you mentioned… not in the codes, but in the Constitution.
    The relevant clause says that members of Congress “shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony, and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their attendance at the Session of their Respective Houses, and in going to and from the same”. However, one could consider this a “Breach of the Peace” – but it’s not a felony under the criminal laws, as DC Code 22-1319 makes false alarms a misdemeanor, unlike in some states like New Jersey (NJSA 2C:33-3) and New York (Penal Law 240.55 or 240.60). And in some other states, false alarms are only felonies if it’s a repeat violation, such as Arizona (ARS 13-2907) and Florida (FS 806.101).

    Also, another possible solution to stop false alarms without interfering with real ones would be a different kind of cover: break-glass covers.

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