Near-Miss, Weekly Report: Complacency at Automatic Alarm Run

"...the firefighters encountered a mild electrical burning odor. The firefighter/maintenance worker informed the crew that the problem most likely was associated with the new alarm panel that was recently installed... The chief entered the building and encountered two firefighters, in bunker pants only, attempting to access the alarm’s power supply transformer... The chief investigated other areas of the basement and observed increasing levels of a burning odor. The chief ordered the evacuation of the building and requested a full first alarm dispatch..."

Automatic alarms are the bane of the fire service. Some malfunction with enough frequency that firefighters become complacent and apathetic. We look at the building owner and alarm company with contempt for these "nuisances."

However, complacent and apathetic mindsets are ingredients for disaster. This week’s ROTW reminds us of three things: 1) SOPs are in place to ensure consistent performance and best practices are used on all incidents. 2) Repeated false alarms cannot be taken lightly. Frequent system malfunctions should be cause for firefighters to maintain a heightened level of awareness when dispatched for Trouble Alarms, Fire Alarms and Activated Smoke Detectors. 3) Arriving at all incidents in the appropriate level of PPE will save on operational efficiency when confronted with an actual fire. Once you have reviewed the entire report, consider the following:

  1. How many "frequent flyer" automatic alarms does your station run each month?
  2. How are these incidents supposed to be handled (e.g., response mode, PPE level, amount of apparatus, etc.) according to your department’s SOPs/SOGs?
  3. How do you and your crew approach these incidents?
  4. What are the issues when a company (or companies) arrives less than ready to fight a fire and the automatic alarm turns out to be for a working fire?
  5. What specific steps do you take to ensure you don’t fall into the "complacency trap?"

Report Number: 06-0000478

Report Date: 09/19/2006 23:51

Event Description

A large, all volunteer, fire department was dispatched to a fire alarm at an unoccupied private school building located directly across the street from one of the department's fire stations. This particular building was a repeated source of false alarm and was listed as one of the department’s "frequent flyers". A firefighter, who also is the head of maintenance at the school, responded directly to the scene. The firefighter/maintenance worker reset the alarm system and informed the responding police officer that the alarm system was currently being upgraded and supposed to be offline and inactive. The firefighter/maintenance worker left the scene and returned home. Firefighters responding to the station across the street observed that alarm strobes were activated inside the school structure. Three firefighters responded to the school in a brush truck and requested that the firefighter/maintenance worker return to the scene. Upon entering the basement utility room to access the alarm systems main panel, the firefighters encountered a mild electrical burning odor. The firefighter/maintenance worker informed the crew that the problem most likely was associated with the new alarm panel that was recently installed. The duty chief officer arrived on the scene and was unable to make radio contact with the crew operating in the basement. The operator of the responding brush truck informed the chief that there was an alarm malfunction and that the crew was working with the maintenance worker to disable the alarm. The chief entered the building and encountered two firefighters, in bunker pants only, attempting to access the alarm’s power supply transformer, which they suspected as the source of the odor. The chief investigated other areas of the basement and observed increasing levels of a burning odor. The chief ordered the evacuation of the building and requested a full first alarm dispatch. The first responding truck company discovered a fire in a roof top HVAC unit and extinguished the fire.

Lessons Learned

The compliancy associated with repeated false alarms drives poor decision making. In this instance, several errors in judgment took place: 1) The responding firefighter/maintenance worker assumed that the system malfunctioned and consequently reset the alarm without investigating the alarm. 2) Several dispatched stations failed to respond based on the apathy created by the repeated false alarms. 3) The one station that did respond, assumed an alarm malfunction and did not bring the proper equipment (engine and truck are first due from this station). 4) The firefighters entered the building without full PPE and adequate tools. 5) The firefighters failed to investigate the situation and did not search the building. Instead, they relied upon the firefighter/maintenance worker’s pronouncement that the problem was localized to the basement alarm panel. To prevent similar events all responders must consider each and every alarm as a possible fire event. Regardless of how many false alarm events have been transmitted from a particular location, all dispatched unit must respond in accordance with SOG's. Every alarm of fire must be thoroughly investigated before the response is downgraded or canceled. Unfortunately, false alarms are a fact of life for firefighters. However, strenuous fire code enforcement, as well as public awareness of the inherent dangers false alarms create, can reduce their quantity and frequency.

Demographics

Department type: Volunteer

Job or rank: Assistant Chief

Department shift: Respond from home

Age: 43 - 51

Years of fire service experience: 27 -30

Region: FEMA Region II

Event Information

Event type: Fire emergency event: structure fire, vehicle fire, wildland fire, etc.

Event date and time: 08/04/2006 04:04

Hours into the shift: 0 - 4

Event participation: Involved in the event

Do you think this will happen again? Yes

What do you believe caused the event?

  • Training Issue
  • Communication
  • Decision Making
  • Human Error
  • Situational Awareness

What do you believe is the loss potential?

  • Minor injury
  • Life threatening injury
  • Life threatening injury

Firehouse.com is working with the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System to get the word out about previous fire fighter near-miss incidents. Each week, Firehouse.com will publish the Fire Fighter Near-Miss Report of the Week (ROTW). If you would like to receive the ROTW, please e-mail: nearmiss@iafc.org with "subscribe-FHC" in the subject line. If you have had a similar experience and would like to report it and to learn more about the program, please visit: www.firefighternearmiss.com.

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