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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Since a building owner could then receive a $500 fine by failing to take appropriate corrective action after an alarm malfunction, a valid concern was raised. If the goal of a mini-maxi fee schedule is to create an incentive for owners to get their systems repaired, then it will fail if alarm maintenance companies are unable to deliver adequate service and repairs in a timely fashion. To address this issue, our task force, working with the local electrical board, recommended an amendment to the local electrical code dealing with "requirements and responsibilities of alarm contractors." Specifically, for those occupancies experiencing excessive false alarms and/or alarm malfunctions, the alarm contractors who installed and/or provided maintenance to these systems, can be ordered to appear before our Fire Protection Advisory Committee. Alarm contractors must comply with the reasonable recommendations made by the committee to eliminate future false alarms; otherwise, they are deemed in violation of the code and subject to progressive steps, which can result in the revocation of their occupational license. This action has helped to ensure a higher level of care in the installation and maintenance of alarm systems. Likewise, it has helped owners achieve more responsive service, repairs, and system upgrades. Again, these measures result in a win-win strategy.

Realizing that a false alarm ordinance can only be effective if properly implemented, our task force developed a number of additional interventions, including:

  • Public education regarding the ordinance revisions, as well as techniques to achieve the proper selection, installation, testing and maintenance of automatic fire alarm systems.
  • Appropriate training programs for administrative and response personnel, to assure standardization and smooth implementation of the revised procedures.
  • Appropriate computer programs developed and necessary forms created to facilitate the collection and analysis of alarm systems data.
  • Cooperative efforts with local, state and national organizations along with alarm industry experts, to solicit continued assistance (working with the alarm system owner) to mitigate specific false alarm problems.
  • The continuance of a task force approach to develop future action plans, as well as to analyze incoming data, making the necessary adjustments to reduce false alarms.

To be successful, a false alarm program must be built on a solid foundation, which can be achieved only through the formation of a strong community partnership. In the area of public education and information, it is important to use every medium available. For example, our revised ordinance requires the alarm contractor who is installing a system to provide the building owner a copy of our false alarm ordinance, NFPA 72H and an alarm registration form prior to activation of the system. Another initiative included presentations on local TV and radio programs to educate the public regarding the value and responsibilities of alarm systems.

An important and often overlooked area in dealing with false alarm problems is that of adequate data collection. Bertschinger stresses that false alarm problems cannot be solved by trial and error. She has recommended that "to reduce false alarms, exact data are needed as to the scale and complexity of the problem at a given location ... The time of occurrence, the exact location of the offending detector, other environmental information all those details will give an objective account of the main problems so that a picture of the circumstances leading up to the false alarms can be established, and the situation can be changed systematically."

To be effective in solving the false alarm problem in a facility, even if adequate data is available, other agencies should be requested to assist. Some false alarm problems are complex in nature.

As the national Quality Control program suggests, a jurisdiction should attempt the following:

  • Identify and solicit support from major local suppliers of fire alarm systems.
  • Identify the alarm systems in the community (about 10 to 20 at a time) which generate the highest number of false alarms and meet with the alarm installation and/or maintenance companies and the building owners/occupants.
  • Provide all possible data on these problem systems and try to coordinate a cooperative effort to examine and analyze the alarm system until appropriate corrective measures are accomplished.

According to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), the AHJ is not alone in the battle to prevent false alarms. The manufacturers of alarm systems desire to stand behind their products. If there is a failure within a system, most manufacturers are eager to help correct the problem, not only in the short term but in long-term technical modifications as well. However, they are unable to accomplish this goal without feedback from alarm system installation companies, as well as the local AHJ's. Numerous local, state and national organizations can assist in the fight to reduce false alarms.