Last reviewed 2 November 2015

Mike Sopp looks at methods of reducing false alarms and unwanted visits from the Fire and Rescue Services.

Introduction

In June 2014, the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) published revised guidance on the reduction of false alarms and consequent unwanted fire signals to Fire and Rescue Services (FRS).

Commenting on its release, CFOA stated that changes in Fire and Rescue Services’ response strategies, influenced by financial constraints and changes in legislation, require a partnership approach to deal with the problem of unwanted fire signals with “clear responsibilities and expectations” existing between all stakeholders.

With the CFOA guidance stating that “the ideal place to prevent false alarms from being transmitted to Fire and Rescue Services as unwanted fire signals is on site”, it is clear that the responsible person must be aware of their responsibilities and how they can filter unwanted signals from the fire detection and alarm system on site.

Response strategy changes

A well designed, installed and maintained automatic fire detection and alarm system (FDAS) can be an effective fire (life) safety precaution. It provides for the early detection and warning of fire so as to enable all occupants of the premises to evacuate in a timely manner.

Despite a reduction in transmission of unwanted fire signals to FRS, it remains a significant issue. In the year April 2012 to March 2013, FRS attended over 249,000 false alarms, the majority of which were from automatic fire detection and alarm systems.

As CFOA guidance states, “the historical cautious presumption that the call is genuine, until proved otherwise, is becoming more difficult to sustain with the large numbers of false alarms being generated”.

With FRS under considerable financial pressures and the reduction in resources, responding to false alarms can divert essential resources from real emergency situations. Consequently, many FRS are now reviewing and changing strategies in relation to how they respond to fire signals from FDASs.

The rationale for this originates from s. 7 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, which requires FRS to make provision for fire-fighting but not to attend premises to ascertain if a fire exists.

As a consequence, FRS are introducing alternative response strategies that, depending upon the type of premises involved, range from non-attendance (unless fire situation is confirmed), reduced attendance and call-challenging arrangements to ascertain the situation before determining the response.

In addition, under the Localism Act, FRS now have the powers to charge for attending unwanted fire signals while under the relevant UK fire safety legislation, can take enforcement action against repeat offenders.

The need for on-site filtering

For the person responsible for fire safety, a reduction in false alarms from FDASs will reduce business disruption and will sustain occupiers’ confidence in the reliability of the system.

BS5839-1 contains guidance on rates that would be acceptable, based on the number of heads, with many organisations using this as a benchmark to be achieved.

However, as guidance from the London Fire Brigade (LFB) states “whilst there may be an acceptable rate of false alarms relative to the number of detector heads there is no acceptable rate for these false alarms being transmitted to the Fire Brigade to become unwanted fire signals (UwFS)”.

CFOA Guidance for the Reduction of False Alarms and Unwanted Fire Signals recognises this and states that one of the aims of the guidance is to ensure the responsible person has “effective procedures in place so that an alarm actuation is managed appropriately to minimise UwFS calls and ensure, as much as reasonably possible, that a call being passed to FRS is a fire event”.

Doing so has clear business benefits, not least limiting exposure to charges and potential enforcement action by the FRS. Therefore, as well as reducing false alarms, organisations are being encouraged to consider the introduction of on-site filter arrangements.

Each FRS will have its own policies and procedures in relation to on-site filtering but in London, guidance from the LFB states that it should be considered if “there are sufficient false alarms to unreasonably impact on emergency services”.

However, the guidance notes that filtering measures should only ever be employed as a result of a suitable fire risk assessment. The assessment should take into account both the fire alarm system and the capability of management practices to support the filtering practices being considered, particularly in relation to the protection of staff members who may be required to investigate the cause of the actuation.

When assessing the risk, there can be many factors to consider including:

  • the premises’ size, use, layout and facilities

  • capabilities and flexibility of the FDAS and use of Alarm Receiving Centres

  • potential procedures to be used to gather information on alarm causation

  • current fire evacuation strategies utilised in the premise

  • investigation timescales available

  • communications during investigations

  • capabilities of staff involved in filtering arrangements

  • safety issues involved with on-site filtering.

Arrangements and procedures

It should be noted that, in the majority of cases where on-site filtering is to be considered, the evacuation strategy will be one of immediate simultaneous evacuation, unless the fire risk assessment can justify other arrangements.

A key aspect of any on-site filter system will be the information to be used to determine the causation of the alarm actuation and need for the FRS to respond. Information sources may include building occupiers, dedicated staff pro-actively investigating the area of actuation and information from the FDAS and associated linked systems.

In respect of the latter, CFOA guidance notes that it is appropriate to consider the significance of the system information available and “AFA signals that alert of an incident with a high reliability indication of fire, such as sprinkler activation, co-incidence detection, call point actuation, multiple detector/type activation…may all, potentially, be considered sufficient reason to immediately request the attendance of the FRS”.

Where staff members are to undertake a physical investigation, the responsible person must give thought to the safety of these staff, how they are to communicate with those who have overall responsibility for the fire emergency procedures and the training required to undertake the necessary procedures.

Clearly, as part of the on-site filter process, it will be necessary to consider the procedure for calling the FRS in the event that a fire has actually materialised.

Where this is via the traditional method of dialling of 999, it will be necessary to decide who will have responsibility for this and how they will be provided with the information they need (ie from those investigating or those interpreting data for systems).

Where the premises are linked to an Alarm Receiving Centre/Fire Alarm Monitoring Organisation it will be necessary to consider introducing a time related system and/or call-back procedure that delays transmission of a signal to the FRS. Even where such a system exists, it is recommended that a direct call using the 999 system is still made on any confirmation of a fire.

When a building is unoccupied, a signal from the fire alarm system is less likely to arise from a false alarm. However, CFOA guidance states that the responsible person needs to “establish how calls are received and confirmed when the building is empty”.

This can include the appointment of an appropriate number of key holders, who are able to be at the premises in no more than 20 minutes, to attend the premises during incidents. t

Further information

  • Chief Fire Officer Association

    • CFOA Guidance for the Reduction of False Alarms and Unwanted Fire Signals

    • Code of Practice: Best Practice for Summoning a Fire Response via Fire Alarm Monitoring Organisations

  • London Fire Brigade

  • GN54: False Alarms Caused by Automatic Fire and Smoke Detection