The advent and implementation of early-warning smoke detection and fire alarm technology has provided the public with life-safety protection not available from the traditional fire service. However, this technology, yet to be perfected, has also caused problems for the public it was created to...
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The remainder of this article will focus on the problems and solutions specifically related to false alarms originating from automatic fire alarm systems, primarily in the commercial environment. Unfortunately, the mere presence of an automatic fire alarm system within an occupancy may not represent an effective life-safety device. Experts in the fire alarm manufacturing industry, who helped author the Quality Control of Automatic Fire Detection and Alarm System Installations booklet, have stressed that "false fire alarms are disruptive to building occupants. They can, over time, cause building occupants to ignore all alarms. Failure to respond to actual alarms can have disastrous consequences."
I have personally reviewed copious amounts of research material, published articles and false alarm ordinances from around the country. Although too numerous to cite entirely here, an overview of the key points would be valuable. In particular, a number of sources indicate that shortcomings in the selection, installation and maintenance of alarm systems can have far-reaching consequences.
Susan Bertschinger, a safety and security system consultant for Ontario's Ministry of Government Services, said, "The frequency of false alarms has become a real problem for municipal fire departments, building owners, and building occupants. Not only do they absorb fire department resources, but they also condition people to ignore the fire alarms that are triggered by a real blaze."
"An executive sits at his desk working when the fire alarm sounds. Will he quickly evacuate the premises or continue working?" This question was posed by Wayne Moore in Security magazine (October 1990). He answered it this way: "Unfortunately, a growing number of personnel continue working. Why? Simple ... false alarms!" He added, "An epidemic of false fire alarms those activated with no fire source present is reducing the credibility of installed life safety smoke and fire detection systems." Even back in August 1986, Moore stated in Rekindle that "false alarms, primarily from smoke detectors, play a major role in decreasing the credibility of a fire alarm system and their psychological impact may well be the most vulnerable link in our early warning systems as installed today."
According to Moore, "False alarms from fire alarm systems have risen to epidemic proportions and are causing many people to take drastic measures, such as disconnecting them, to eliminate the problem. It is obvious that what is needed is significant corrective measures ... implemented immediately."
After conducting an in-depth literature review, it becomes increasingly evident that if fire alarm systems were designed and installed properly, were tested and maintained correctly, then the false alarm problem could be drastically reduced. Since most of the faulty fire alarm systems that are inherited by the AHJ usually are required by a code or ordinance, the public often feels like the fire service is responsible for the problem. Hence, if any fees or costs of improvements result from enforcement efforts to correct the problem, the building owner will be likely to resist strongly. As the battle rages on, the local fire department may have increased false alarm responses, while the owner/occupant gets more irate about the situation. What results is a lose-lose situation.
In 1991, Crowley A. Parris invited this writer to share a presentation of personal research findings at the annual meeting of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association's Signaling, Protection and Communications Section. The opportunity to talk directly with about 50 experts in the alarm industry and related fields was certainly beneficial. The membership was supportive of my efforts to address the false alarm problem as a local chief fire officer. It was encouraging to learn first-hand how closely the manufacturers' goals to improve the false alarm problem paralleled those of the fire service. Frankly, many alarm system manufacturers are genuinely concerned that their alarm systems work properly, maintain a high degree of credibility and effectively save lives when activated.
The Quality Control of Automatic Fire Detection and Alarm System Installations (Quality Control) program, developed by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and the Automatic Fire Alarm Association, was published by Operation Life Safety and promoted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). It includes a comprehensive approach to significantly reduce false alarms from automatic fire detection and alarm systems. Clearly, the false alarm problem will not go away unless each AHJ gets directly involved. But it takes a strong commitment and a great deal of effort, and not just revisiting the problem every few years. This approach will cause a department to lose ground, especially if a false alarm ordinance is allowed to grow obsolete.