30 June 2014


Throughout the world there’s a problem with false alarms from automatic fire detection systems. In the UK this problem has been further under the spotlight because of the Localism Bill which, with some caveats, gives Fire and Rescue Authorities the right to charge for attendance. Indeed, London Fire Brigade announced on 1 January 2014 that it is to charge businesses for call outs if they attend more than ten false alarms in a twelve month period.
However, it’s not all bad news, as official UK government figures show that there has been a steady decline in false alarm numbers over the past ten years and this against the background of ever more systems being installed. Nevertheless, everybody agrees that false alarms are a total waste of the Fire & Rescue Services’ and the users’ time, let alone the money that is involved.
The false alarms problem is further compounded by the absence of a single automatic fire alarm (AFA) Fire & Rescue Service attendance policy in England. This lack of consistency makes it difficult for both end users and fire alarm maintenance companies, whereas in Scotland there is one policy and this has been further reinforced by the setting up of a single fire service.
Another area of concern is the Weston-Super-Mare Grand Pier fire, where the judgment is certainly of interest to the alarm receiving centre industry. In this case, the judge recommended a ‘default rule’ of calling the Fire & Rescue Service, even if the automatic fire alarm signal cannot be confirmed. However, due to the Localism Act, there could be the situation where the Fire & Rescue Service is threatening to charge for a false call and, in extreme cases, take the caller to court!
In view of the continuing false alarm situation the Fire Sector Federation Technology Workstream has brought together a group of stakeholders, including the FIA, and a three stage research project has been agreed:
  • Clearly identify the problem; look at the data and accurately determine the cause of false alarms 
  • Look at what technology is available to provide reliable fire detection
  • Having proved that improvements can be economically made to the fire alarm system, then set about changing the way fire detection is used in the built environment
The Building Research Establishment has commenced stage one; to look at the causes of false alarms. These can include poor management and maintenance, steam, toasters, thrips, cooking, system testing, system faults, unsuitable design, dust, power surge, smoke cloak and so on. The amount of ‘good’ available data is limited, but the insurers and the Fire & rescue Services are generally managing to provide enough information for the project to get underway.
Having found the possible causes for false alarms, the next step is to find ways of using technology to help solve the problem. In order to do this it will be necessary to identify problem sites and to bring the relevant technology, such as recent systems software/hardware updates, to bear.
A major key to success will be the management of the site and the commitment of occupiers to change what happens in their building. The possibility of Fire & Rescue Services charging may help focus management’s attention here. Other techniques that can be utilised are: on-site filtering; fire warden investigation; the linking of systems (fire and intruder); and multi criteria fire detectors. For example, the latter can overcome many issues including hotel shower steam, burnt toast, exhaust in a loading bay and even cigarettes in prisons. The added benefit with multi criteria fire detectors is that if something changes in the monitored area, the sensor can often be re-programmed to suit the new scenario. 
But where do we go next? Today's fire panels can provide the address data from a detector that has triggered. This could be sent to the fire appliance while on its way to the call. There is also the possibility of linking detection points, eg the system may have one point in alarm and two others showing a rapid temperature increase.
All this will cost money to implement, but just think how much could be saved year on year without all of the false alarm call outs.  
In order to drive down the number of false alarms, all involved in our industry will need to change and come together for a common good, for example:
  • Builders need to fit what is suitable for the building rather than the absolute minimum
  • Installers need to ensure that they understand the building and how it will be used 
  • Manufacturers need to develop simple ways to set up and, if required, change the system’s detection parameters
  • Users need to understand what they have fitted, how to best use it and the requirement to change as their business changes 
  • Legislators need to understand that calling for the absolute minimum may not be the most cost effective option in the long term
And last but not least, Fire & Rescue Services need to understand where they fit into the sector.
This research project will take time to prove successful but it is possible and it must be achieved.
Further information concerning driving down false alarms from automatic fire detection systems can be found on the FIA’s website (www.fia.uk.com) in the ‘Cut False Alarm Costs’ micro-site. This has been developed for the end user and it contains a lot of information plus ‘signposts’ to further advice.