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Fire fighting operations

Learning from false alarms

Despite the availability of reliable detection technology, the nuisance of ‘false’ fire alarms is still a problem for modern society.  In fact, for many fire services, false alarms account for as many as 90 percent of the call-outs to which they are summoned.  With fire services throughout Europe currently facing cuts in their spending, many have had to reconsider their response procedures.  However, the manner in which some have set about achieving the savings demanded is probably not serving the best interests of public safety.

Varied approaches range from the reduction of non-intervention activities to the discontinuation of automated alarm transmission.  Some forces are even insisting on eyewitness verification of fire before firefighting services are deployed. This inevitably leads to a delayed response, which is likely to result in any real fire spreading before firefighters arrive.  This alone will surely lead to increased insurance rates to compensate for the higher risk.  On occasions, the risk will possibly result not only in greater damage to property and business activities but, more importantly, in injury and even death for those unfortunate enough to be involved.  So, the reduced budgets for our firefighting services could well prove far more costly in other terms, if we are unable to find better ways to optimize today’s generally more limited resources.  The fire industry is, of course, working to minimize such ‘unwanted’ events.

Apart from the continuous development of better solutions, measures include specific programs for owners and operators, the modernization of older systems and the advocating of regular maintenance.  A recent study into the practices of fire services in selected European countries came about as an attempt to better understand the problem of false alarms in a reference period of ten years (2000–2010) and to identify examples of ‘Best Practice’.  The focus of the study was on those fire systems with an automatic alarm transmission, either direct or routed via an alarm-receiving station.

False alarms are a common problem in the hotel industry

Key findings

Naturally local differences play a big part in the causes of false alarms but – with one notable exception – the ratio of ‘false’ to ‘real’ alarms was consistently found to be 95: 5.  In Switzerland however, the detection industry has almost achieved saturation coverage and, as a result, most activity now involves the modernization of existing systems.  Over the reference period of ten years, the number of false alarms fell by 40 percent.  Most worryingly however, was the finding that in some areas where fire services are charging for false call outs, the practice had led to fires being set deliberately – in wastepaper baskets etc. – in order to avoid the cost.  In spite of the difficulties involved in compiling the data, several key points arose as a result of the study and a number of ‘Best Practice’ examples were found.

Different buildings and the activities undertaken within them present different detection challenges, but certain measures can be effective.  Detection equipment should be installed and maintained avoiding the transfer of smoke and fumes (e.g. from kitchens) and protection covers provided for alarm buttons.  Appropriate processes and procedures should be implemented along with the provision of staff training and guidelines for external personnel. Contracts can be established with competent suppliers to regularly inspect, service, adjust and upgrade the detection system.  This last point is particularly important as the study clearly indicates that false alarm rates and system care are directly linked.

Servicing as defined in DIN 51030 is a proven approach in maintaining a balance between the demands of the system and what it is able to deliver.  Regular inspection and servicing, coupled with regular upgrades, provide the best possible immunity to false alarms.  Regular upgrading and modernization of systems is able to bring down false alarm rates through the ability of current detection technology to be more selective.  The use of higher performing components and microprocessors, along with complex analysis methodologies, means that fire systems are more resistant to deceptive phenomena and capable of differentiating between threatening and non-threatening events.

Currently, even when data is collected and published, it does not happen along agreed parameters, even within the same country.  The Siemens study concluded that there is a real value in continuing to analyze both false and real fire alarms - and lists proposals for industry associations along with the details of websites containing further details of
Best Practice examples.

Gregor Steiner
Picture credits: Siemens Schweiz AG, Building Technologies Division, International Headquarters