False Fire Alarms

Julius E. Halas offers solutions to a problem that continues to plague the public and the fire service.


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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But first, for the benefit of readers whose jurisdictions may not have a false alarm ordinance, a review of its importance is included. The national Quality Control program suggests, "The way to ensure cooperation from the building owners with troublesome systems is to develop an ordinance that imposes fines for false alarms .... The fines can be waived or refunded to support the cost of the system repairs." The study concluded that with the excessive number of false alarms many AHJ's are facing, realistically, full costs will not be achieved through a fine/penalty structure. However, the purpose of such a structure should be to reduce false alarm incidents, not to generate revenue. When penalties exceed alarm services and repair costs, alarm malfunctions generally decrease.

Prior to a consolidation with Sarasota County on Jan. 1, 1996, I had worked for the city of Sarasota Fire-Rescue for over 20 years. In the past, jurisdictions in my area charged fees of $50 or less for excessive false alarms. When initially implemented in the early 1980s, a service call to a malfunctioning system was only about $30. In recent years, the average cost of a service call had risen to approximately $75, or roughly 50 percent higher than the former fees for excessive false alarm responses. Consequently, it was cheaper to pay the fine for the false alarm response by the fire department or law enforcement agency than to call an alarm company out to repair the system. Many people experiencing excessive false alarms had become complacent about getting their alarm systems repaired or upgraded.

Writing as the manager of educational and technical assistance with the National Crime Prevention Institute, in an article in the NCPI Hotline (September 1990), Richard Mellard stated, "If our objective is to reduce false alarms (and it should be), then upgrading (or repairing) the system on each false alarm would be the best way of meeting our goals." He continued, "We can't expect (owners) to upgrade their existing systems if there is no requirement to do so. Ask yourself, how many buildings would have fire sprinkler systems in your community if they were voluntary? We'll be stuck with the false alarm problem forever unless minimum standards are required. Don't leave it to voluntary compliance, or ... you'll have a long wait!"

Some Solutions

The National Fire Protection Association's Fire Protection Handbook stresses that "after a protective signaling system has been installed, it is extremely important to conduct a proper acceptance test and regular periodic tests (per NFPA 72 guidelines) on all parts of the system ... Maintaining and testing signaling equipment are as important as installing the system was in the first place."

In Sarasota, we realized in 1990 that a total update of our local false alarm program and ordinance was needed. A cross-functional task force was formed which included members from the fire department, finance department, law enforcement and attorneys from our legal staff. The task force decided to revisit every section of the existing ordinance.

While reviewing nearly 50 false alarm ordinances from jurisdictions across the United States, it became evident that several contained a unique approach to help motivate the owners to get their alarm systems repaired. The agency that had utilized this approach the longest was the city of York, PA. According to Assistant Chief John S. Senft, it had instituted a "mini-maxi" fine concept which served well over the last decade to keep false alarms under control. Further, he advised that virtually no building owners have had to pay the maximum fine for false fire alarms because they have taken corrective action, thus only having to pay a minimal fee. This approach then results in a win-win situation.

Desiring to formulate a similar successful strategy, our task force started developing materials for future presentations to the governmental leadership. As part of our revisions, a totally revised fire alarm activation report was developed which included an "Affidavit of Service and Repair." This form, which is completed by the responding officer at the scene, also facilitates the capturing of much-needed data and provides information for the owner/occupant, as well as the respective alarm service company.

A new fee structure was also debated. It was determined to double the former fees for excessive false alarms resulting from human causes. In contrast, fees for excessive alarm malfunctions, which were mechanical in nature, were actually lowered (provided that the owner/occupant takes the proper corrective action and returns a satisfactory Affidavit of Service and Repair within 15 days). If acceptable, instead of paying the $500 maximum permissible fine, an administrative fee of only $25 would be assessed. The problem would be repaired, the system back in service, and the owner would only have to pay the minimum fee.