False Fire Alarms

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 serve, as well as for the fire service.


False alarms or alarm malfunctions, resulting from a number of causes, have continued to increase in communities throughout America. As this trend persisted, numerous jurisdictions attempted to mitigate the problem, often with less than acceptable results. Likewise, law enforcement agencies are dealing with a similar problem of false alarms in the rapidly growing number of burglar alarm systems in commercial and residential environments. The goal of this article is to review problems caused by false fire alarms, but more importantly, to examine some specific solutions and action steps for developing a comprehensive approach to solving the false alarm problem.

Some Of The Problems

While fire and burglar alarm technology was rapidly changing during the 1970s and '80s, the public was realizing an increased need for crime prevention and fire protection. Numerous alarm systems were installed to meet the need and comply with applicable codes and regulations. This technology, which included smoke detection equipment, had yet to be perfected and was too often installed by personnel lacking sufficient expertise in their field. Moreover, this sharp rise in the number of alarm systems, many of which were monitored or supervised by a central station, contributed greatly to a growing problem of false fire and burglar alarms.

These unwanted alarms or alarm malfunctions (originating from causes other than actual heat, smoke and fire or from crimes and attempted crimes) began to have adverse effects on emergency resources across the nation. Specifically, these rising false alarms significantly affected available manpower for true emergencies, increased safety hazards to emergency personnel and the public, and eroded the trust and confidence many building occupants had in these alarm systems.

Although causes of false alarms in fire alarm systems appear different than those in burglar alarm systems, some important common denominators do exist. Many "authorities having jurisdiction" (AHJs) are recognizing that the false alarm situation is indeed a multi-faceted problem and can only be solved by using a comprehensive approach. Failure to take meaningful corrective action will have disastrous consequences for citizens and will cause public safety officials to question whether they can continue to increase personnel and resources to respond to these chronic false alarms.

As the current Fire Service Associate member of the Alarm Association of Florida (AAF) board of directors, I have worked with the association's False Alarm Reduction Effort (FARE) Committee for nearly four years. The AAF president, Fred Aaron, an alarm company owner, said he is convinced that the false alarm problem may well be the worst enemy facing the alarm industry. He has stated that "the alarm industry has attracted the attention of officials who are going to fix the problem."

He further advises his peers that "our job, as alarm professionals, is to work with the police and fire officials in our communities to take the lead with FARE. The FARE Committee is in the process of developing materials that will soon be available to help us in this battle. But, in the meantime, we all must commit ourselves to becoming a part of the solution since we are already part of the problem. If we do not take immediate action, and encourage others to do likewise, we will find ourselves in a regulated environment so oppressive that we will be unable to operate our businesses, with no one to blame but ourselves."

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.

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.

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.

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).

We must all strive to reduce false alarms and restore the credibility in these life-safety systems. In Sarasota, we are working toward expanding our alarm ordinance throughout the county in an effort to further mitigate false fire alarms.

Can false alarms really be stamped out? I believe success is attainable but not without tenacity, empowering leadership and incredible patience.

Remember, the key element to mitigate false alarms in our own jurisdictions, or any community, will not be from acquiring the information in this article alone. Rather, the answer will be realized in a community's ability to effectively implement a comprehensive approach to solving the false alarm problem.

Julius E. Halas is deputy chief of the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department.