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01/11/2013 / Graham Lowe

Counting the cost of false alarms

I’m Graham Lowe, sales director at Hochiki Europe, and I’d like to welcome you to the latest in a series of blogs where I, along with guest bloggers, examine the issues affecting the life safety industry.

 In this blog I look at the look at the impact of unwanted and false alarms on companies, fire services and wider society, and explain why those that fail to deal with this issue are should face stiff penalties.

It is a source of constant disappointment to me how many installers, end users and even manufacturers of fire detection products and systems have such an apathetic attitude towards the issue of persistent false alarms. It seems somewhat contradictory that while so much technology is available to keep people and property safe, it is sometimes specified, configured and maintained in a way that causes massive amounts of disruption and expense.

It is estimated that the cost to the UK of poor false alarm management is £1bn a year and although there have been significant reductions in these types of of incidents in recent times, it is still a shockingly high figure. At the most basic level false alarms have an impact on the public as fire crews are being called to something they don’t need to go to. At the same time, there’s very little the fire service can do about it, as once they’re called out they have to attend in case there actually is a fire.

According to statistics published by the Department for Communities & Local Government, between April 2011 and March 12 a total of 223,000 genuine fires were attended to by fire and rescue authorities in England – two per cent fewer than in 2010-11. However, the number of false alarms that were attended to in the same period totalled 249,000. Although this figure marked a reduction of nine per cent on the previous year, and 37 per cent fewer than 10 years ago, fire crews are still being needlessly called out when alarms are activated due to things such as burning toast.

To put the problem into perspective, false alarms are attended to by the London Fire Brigade (LFB) almost once every 10 minutes at a cost of £37m per year, and just last month it was reported that fire-fighters went to a school in Rowner, near Gosport, twice in one day after building work set off fire alarms.

This is a massive issue both in terms of time and resources, and persistent offenders are, quite rightly, being put under pressure to deal with the problem. As my colleague, Andy Dickinson, pointed out in his recent blog, measures are being touted that could lead to a reduced level of response for businesses that have a poor false alarm history.

Fire and rescue services are already requesting that offices and factories check there is a genuine blaze before dialling 999 and although this is reducing the number of unnecessary call outs, local government is being urged to explore other ways to further reduce the burden imposed on emergency services. Suggestions include serving those that routinely raise false alarms with an improvement notice that if breached will result in court action, and there could be financial penalties for those that fail to deal with the problem.

The most common causes of false alarms are poor product selection, misguided installation, the activities of people or processes within the building, and/or little or no system maintenance. To help eliminate the first of these it is advisable to carry out a risk assessment to identify likely fire risks and then match the right products to the specific requirements of the premises.

It might sound obvious, but careful consideration should also be given to their selection and siting. For example, manual call points should be protected from malicious damage by utilising protective hinged front covers and, with automatic smoke detectors generating more false alarms than any other type of detector, they must be located in the most suitable area possible. Just as importantly, when an area changes its use, the type of fire detector sited there must be reviewed. It’s surprising just how often such simple procedures are ignored.

If the issue of false and unwanted alarms isn’t taken a whole lot more seriously, and with public sector budgets being reduced, it is likely to fall upon building owners to contribute to the cost of dealing with the problem. I wholeheartedly support any measures that penalise those that waste public resources in this way – what about you?

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