Snuffing Out False Fire Alarms

False fire alarms affect everyone — from the firefighters whose job it is to respond to them to those who live and work where they occur. Most of all, they erode public confidence, often resulting in slower response times, which is not what anyone wants considering

that seconds often mean the difference between life and death in a fire situation.

To combat this problem, communities often create false alarm ordinances where a graduated monetary fine structure is instituted. The hope is that this will encourage users to do whatever it takes to prevent a repeat performance. Many times this includes false alarm education and a variety of other innovative programs.

In this installment of “Fire Side Chat” we’ll explore the root causes of false alarms and how many professional fire alarm firms deal with them. Our objective is to help SSI readers reduce false alarms.

Substantiating the Problem

The false fire alarm problem represents a constant, ever-festering thorn in the side of municipalities, private corporations, homeowners and the fire departments that respond to them.

Since 1999, there has been a marked improvement in the false fire alarm situation, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. False Alarm Activity in the U.S., 2007, outlines the false alarm problem using statistical data accumulated during 2007.

“In 2007, U.S. fire departments responded to 2,208,500 false alarms. This was an increase of 4.2 percent [compared to the previous year]. This means that one of 10 calls responded to by fire departments were false alarms,” says Michael J. Karter Jr. of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Fire Analysis and Research Division.

Because of the increasing number of false alarms, more and more communities are looking to adopt a false alarm ordinance.

Causes of False Fire Alarms

When we talk about false alarms generated by burglar alarms, the majority of the time it’s due to user error. These errors are commonly caused by mistakes the user makes during the process of entering and exiting the facility. However, when we examine the false alarm problem from a fire alarm perspective, the problem takes on an entirely new dimension.

System malfunction was the No. 2 cause of false fire dispatches mentioned in the NFPA report cited in the previous section of this column.

“System malfunctions increased 2.7 percent from a year ago, accounting for 740,500 or 33.5 percent of all false alarms,” says Karter. “Over the 1988-2007 period, the number of system malfunctions increased every year from 1988 to 1999 and increased an overall 63.7 percent from 550,500 in 1988 to 901,500 in 1999, changed little in 2000, and decreased 17.9 percent to 740,500 by the end of 2007.”

For comparison, the No. 1 source of false alarm calls, which accounted for 951,000 of them or 43.1 percent of all false fire alarms, fell into a catchall category called “Unintentional Calls.” This classification includes things like the accidental trip of automatic detectors and carbon monoxide detector activations.

Other false alarm categories include “Malicious False Calls,” which accounted for 222,500 calls or 10.1 percent of all false calls; and one called “Other,” accounting for 294,500 calls or 13.3 percent of all false calls.

Fallout From False Dispatches

There’s a good deal of fallout when a false alarm occurs. For example, every time fire trucks roll there is always the possibility of death or injury should an accident take place. Such a tragedy is compounded all the more when it’s later discovered the fire call was false.

Another issue of importance pertains to monetary loss due to false alarms. For example, in a manufacturing plant a good deal of money can be lost when a false alarm occurs due to the impact on productivity. Add to this the wear and tear of fire control equipment and the building alarm system and you begin to see some of the hidden costs associated with false fire alarms.

Municipalities also report that false fire alarms represent a significant drain on their budgets. This is especially true in today’s depressed economy. Many cities have already downsized city services due to budgetary constraints, and false fire alarms represent an ever-constant burden.

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About the Author


Al Colombo is a long-time trade journalist and professional in the security and life-safety markets. His work includes more than 40 years in security and life-safety as an installer, salesman, service tech, trade journalist, project manager,and an operations manager. You can contact Colombo through TpromoCom, a consultancy agency based in Canton, Ohio, by emailing allan@Tpromo.Com, call 330-956-9003, visit www.Tpromo.Com.

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