Blue light warning: How the false alarm epidemic continues to resist all remedies

More than 50% of the 600,000 callout incidents attended by fire and rescue services annually (FRS) are false alarms, according to the latest statistics from the Fire Service. The cost of this wasted time for both business and the fire service is estimated to be well in excess of 1 billion per year, in part as a result of downtime from groundless evacuations. In the last five years this position has not appreciably changed.

What s more, false fire alarms from automatic alarm systems due to poor maintenance are on the increase. As to the ratio between real fire emergencies and false alarms, regrettably in England a sustained trend for the past five years shows the number of false alarm call outs actually exceeding real primary fire call outs by a significant margin, which is in itself a damningly cautionary finding. In London this ratio is, exceptionally, two to one (and currently reflecting a slight increase in unwanted calls against target aims). These blue light responses, then, to automated unwanted fire alarm signals (UFAS) represent a grave menace, hindering services that could be needed at a genuine emergency or even interrupting critical front-line training for first responders . Beyond such considerations as this needless burden on the FRS authorities, business disruptions that lead to a loss of productivity, the reduced confidence of the general public, and even the environmental impact of inessential emergency appliance movements all need to be taken into account. Hospitals have been identified as responsible for the vast majority of the false alarms that the capital s firefighters are called out to And this persistent malfunctioning of fire alarms is even more glaringly highlighted when you stop to consider the recent deliberations by the UK government on the creation of multi-agency Strategic Command Centres embracing the blue light emergency services Fire, Ambulance and Police. In the view of some analysts, this new configuration of the services is likely to spark debate about multiple call outs and the cost implications of all three services responding to incidents, when so very often a reported event can be a false alert. Tri-Service Control Centres It s a concern foreseen and amplified by the Chief Fire Officers Association, one of whose chief officers comments: Until an event is attended and confirmed as a false alarm it will always be treated as an emergency and responded to by the appropriate service or services. The National Police Chiefs Council also anticipates an enhanced collaborative response arising from the Tri-Service Control Centres: We welcome any opportunity to enable the blue light services to work more effectively together in the public interest . . .

They can concentrate expertise, save money, help deal with crises and share best practice. So, in short, this proposed drive towards a more joined-up response to emergencies intends to coordinate front-line services to yield more efficiencies in time-savings and management of personnel, with joint decision-making aimed to prioritise blue light call outs concentrated on inter-operable control rooms. Yet the question remains, will these new efficiencies be reciprocated by risk management in a renewed commitment to defeat false alarms in their communities by improving the functional integrity of the Automatic Fire Detection and Fire Alarm Systems (AFDS) on which the public rely? Hospitals Since the London Fire Brigade (LFB) introduced its penalty charging scheme for excessive false fire alarm call outs in January 2014, the potential for the LFB to collect millions in penalties from the worst culprits in the capital has remained a possible outcome (at present, for 2017, the scheme is suspended for review). Hospitals have been identified as responsible for the vast majority of the false alarms that the capital s firefighters are called out to. The LFB s figures from before the scheme s inception show that firefighters were called out, overall, to over 400 locations annually (each more than ten times) in response to false fire alarms, costing the brigade about 800,000. This frequency equates to a false alarm every 15 minutes in London. Overall, false alarms from automatic systems still account for around 40,000 call outs for the LFB every year, set against call outs of around half that number to real fires. The very latest LFB figures for cost recovery for non domestic premises generating 10 or more calls a year, continue to record a potential recovery value on average of approaching 500,000 in charges every 12 months.

Crying Wolf Unwanted Fire Signals that cry wolf in this manner place a vast burden on Fire and Rescue Services by unnecessarily tying up fire engines and firefighters on needless call-outs, when they may be needed at a genuine emergency. Sophisticated predictive technology reduces the problem by resolving potential problems before they arise That is why the pressure on risk management and, more particularly, Responsible Persons to cut the risks of false alarms is intensifying. What s more, by tolerating a norm of frequent needless fire alarm annunciations, negligent premises management can create a dangerous mood of apathy among staff that could very easily lead to widespread irresponsiveness should a real fire break out. Intelligence convergence for remote troubleshooting For responsible risk management, current best practice conditioned by ecological concerns seeks to reduce the impact on the environment that potentially arises from the life cycle of a fire system. Today, fire prevention is an essential element of Building Management Systems (BMSs) integrated with an IT infrastructure purposed to fully exploit Intelligence Convergence, allowing direct integration into intelligent buildings via any device capable of establishing an internet connection, granting risk management instant access to review the system, including the status of fire detection devices in real time. Current solutions encompass smart security systems such as access control/ID systems, video surveillance/analytics, intrusion detection, and life safety . . . all extending the capability for remote diagnostics that confer the ecological benefits of increased efficiency yielded by fault-free systems. For example: servicing, maintenance and false call outs all contribute to increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere leading to changes in global environmental conditions. These hazards can be significantly reduced by the use of sophisticated predictive technology, reducing the need to travel by allowing potential problems to be resolved before they arise.

Predictive technology can include the management of fire and security servicing inspection routines, false fire alarm interrogation and diagnosis, or the scheduling of system maintenance call-outs. At the same time, these examples of Intelligence Convergence can benefit users with the capability to support a full audit trail for traceability and regulatory compliance.

10 practical steps towards combating the false alarms menace As the latest statistics suggest, a number of remedies to stimulate behavioural change can be derived from analysis of common shortcomings at malfunctioning sites: Enhanced maintenance routines are evidently a priority, and certainly they re a key requirement embedded in any regular review a fire risk assessment in compliance with the Fire Safety Order Troubleshooting for predictive maintenance is facilitated by comprehensively monitored configurable Automatic Fire Alarm systems to ensure integrity of alarm device functionality, supported by EN 54-2 approved Analogue Addressable panels. Specification of sensing devices that further reduce susceptibility to false alarms by their embedded intelligence to discriminate between spurious fire events and genuine ones. Multisensors are the considered choice when replacing problem detectors; or the changing of devices from smoke to heat in certain locations when necessary. Specification of high-integrity fire data communications via accessible configurable networks whose performance to minimise false activations is defined by the highest reliability in resistance to outside interference. Constant reviews should be maintained as to change of use within premises because such changes can affect the sensitivity of detectors, requiring appointed fire alarm maintenance personnel to update/upgrade the system. Improved training of responsible risk management. Advise users of fire detection systems that these lifelines are connected to an ARC (Alarm Receiving Centre) and emphasise the gravity of an UFAS (automated unwanted fire alarm signal) resulting in a costly call out, endangering genuine call outs. More rigorous supervision of negligent testing of the system where the routine to take it off-line is persistently disregarded thus triggering a UFAS at the ARC.

Incorrect positioning of sensing/detecting devices contrary to specification s installation data. Unregulated misuse of premises: toasters, cigarette smoking, steam from kettle in office, even aerosol sprays (used by cleaning staff) near smoke detectors can cause false alarms. Arising from recommendations that both BS 5839-1:2013 and BS 9999:2017 lay emphasis on, accurate up-to-date Zone Plans for rapid orientation for building occupants and the emergency services alike are cited as key aids. Such plans should be adjacent to the control & indicating equipment and, as may be imagined, their prominent depiction of fire alarm zones that accurately match the physical layout within the building hasten the identification of the location of alarms in an emergency, whether real or false. Visit FIREX International for cutting-edge solutions, essential knowledge and the ability to grow your business by getting direct access to the whole fire safety industry. It is the perfect place to get your product in front of thousands of buyers, across a multitude of featured areas. From the brand new Drone Zone, the ARC Village, ASFP Passive Protection Zone, the Engineers of Tomorrow competition and more, it s all under one roof so you ll never miss a beat.

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