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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During the last several years, I have received information via interviews, literature and workshops from representatives of numerous organizations, including the AAF, Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA), NEMA, IAFC, Operation Life Safety, National Fire Academy superintendent and faculty, NFPA, National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA), Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), Public Technologies Inc., Florida Division of State Fire Marshal, Florida League of Cities Inc., Florida Innovations Group, Cigna Property and Casualty Companies, Florida Power and Light Co. and National Emergency Training Center's Learning Resource Center.

Another resource, especially helpful with weather-related problems or power surges, is your local electric or power company. Experts in the field, like Jim McWhorter, district engineer with Florida Power and Light, suggest that any building experiencing excessive false alarms (after other causes have been ruled out) should be brought to the attention of the local power company. These problems, especially those caused routinely during inclement weather, can often be mitigated by proper use of uninterrupted power supplies or similar technology.

Likewise, Ronald Kirby, an electrical engineer with Simplex, said, "Technology exists to significantly reduce false alarms from fire alarm systems caused by lightning storms."

Researching a complex problem, such as false alarms in automatic fire alarm systems, can become a never-ending project. After months of research and development, our task force presented the recommended interventions to our commissioners, along with specific proposals aimed at accomplishing effective implementation. After receiving their unanimous approval, in the first two years we achieved a reduction in false fire alarms of over 30 percent.

The results of a nationwide survey we conducted, along with input from the alarm industry, all seemed to agree on the major factors causing the false alarm problem. In short, improper installation, lack of adequate maintenance, failure to have obsolete alarm system components upgraded and human errors are among the primary causes of the problem. However, it is important to remember that many alarm systems existing today are functioning properly and are causing few, if any, false alarms. For example, in the past few years approximately 10 percent of our community's automatic fire alarm systems have experienced four or more false alarms annually. This local data was in line with national NFPA statistics which indicate that only 10 percent of the systems cause the majority of the false alarms.

Prepare To Take Action!

If only 10 percent of the alarm systems can cause such substantial false alarm problems, then corrective action must be initiated and mandated through appropriate legislation. A significant recommendation of our local research project was the adoption and implementation of a comprehensive false alarm ordinance.

Any jurisdiction considering implementation of a false alarm ordinance would be well advised to not take the idea lightly. Many activities will be necessary to ensure the success of such an ordinance and sufficient time must be allocated to prepare for its effective implementation. To that end, our task force presented our recommendation nearly six months in advance of the proposed effective date. This allowed adequate time for public education and other vital functions. For example, procurement of a data management system, preferably a computer program, will take time and money.

Developing and delivering effective training programs for fire department personnel and the public will also take time and resources. The proper development, printing, and distribution of required forms and instructional brochures will also be an asset. Finally, the formation of guidelines and standard operating procedures will help to facilitate standardization and consistent implementation of a comprehensive false alarm program.

Solving the false alarm problem can become extremely frustrating unless a significant effort is undertaken by a community's leadership. Anthony O'Neill shared an important reminder when he stated, "As we work to reduce unwanted alarms, let's not forget the proven track record of smoke and fire detection. Early warning smoke and fire detection provide the escape time and early signaling so crucial to life safety. It's time to fine-tune this lifesaving technology to eliminate the last obstacles to their more widespread use and save even more lives" (Fire Journal, January-February 1988).