The real cost of false alarms

Fire safety

If you have a high incidence of false alarms in your educational premises you may want to think about how it not only uses the time and resources of your staff but also that of the local Fire and Rescue Services. Indeed this was the case with Kings College in London, which has worked successfully for many years alongside its fire alarm maintenance provider to try and eliminate the false alarm problems, but more of that later.

With various Fire and Rescue Services making policy changes to their attendance at automatic fire alarms (AFAs) it could be time to take notice of this problem if you want to avoid paying for unwanted fire signals.

Functioning equipment
Let us firstly consider our trusted friend the humble toaster – often the cause for setting off the smoke detector and calling out the Fire and Rescue Service, wasting a lot of time and money in the process. One thing to point out here is that the smoke detector has done its job. Many people attribute false alarms to equipment malfunction when, in reality, a lot of them are about premises management.

It’s not only students in university halls burning toast, as educational establishments in general have a problem with false alarms. Indeed, a 2006 report from London Fire Brigade showed that that they get approximately ten false alarms per day from educational establishments.

The revised CFOA/FIA False Alarms Policy attempts to clarify the relationship between those responsible for the protected premises; the fire alarm service provider, Alarm Receiving Centres (ARC) and the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS). It ties in the responsibilities of all those involved to their duties under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

The policy sets out a distinction between what happens at the premises, the point at which the alarm signal is considered a ‘false alarm’, if there is no fire; and at the fire brigade where the signal becomes an ‘unwanted fire signal’. Unwanted because the FRS only want to respond to real fires.

The policy goes on to look at how this ‘fire’ signal can be dealt with at the various stages before it reaches the FRS.

Attending fires
Coming back to the burnt toast scenario; then what happens? Well, the smoke alarm goes off but under the new policy, the FRS will attend the first time there is a signal from the premises. However, if they arrive and it turns out to be a false alarm the premises will receive a letter from the FRS requiring the premises be registered to the policy.

Part of the registration will involve the FRS, the premises and the maintenance provider discussing the best way of managing the problem, which can involve system changes, if appropriate, or in most cases, a change in the management of the system. Therefore, if there is a fire signal from the system in the future there should be a management system in place to investigate the signal before it is transmitted to the ARC or FRS.

If it’s a confirmed fire then the signal is passed to the FRS and they arrive with the appropriate level of response, as dictated in their Integrated Risk Management Plan. It is not envisaged that the responsible person is expected to do a full search of the premises – the fire panel should give them the location of the signal and they should be able to safely check if there is a fire or a false alarm.

Changes in response
If no management plan is in place at a later date and a false alarm reaches the FRS as an Unwanted Fire Signal, then the FRS can instigate the changes in the response level given in the plan, but they will still work with the premises to improve the system. If nothing is done and false alarm signals from the premises continue to reach the FRS, they will look to take action against the premises under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order.

The policy recognises that in many cases an alarm at protected premises never reaches the FRS as it is handled by the management systems, either it was proved to be a false alarm and the call was cancelled, or it was a fire but was dealt with by first aid firefighting equipment.

Regarding signals from an ARC, the policy presupposes that the onsite checks already have been carried out as part of the contract between the premises and the ARC, so the FRS will go to the premises assuming that there is a fire. If it turns out not to be a fire then the same action mentioned above begins.

The policy also treats social alarm providers (telecare) separately but they still have to confirm that there is a fire, either by call back or their management plan. It also deals with the 999 call to the brigade. All of the above scenarios are covered in flow charts which form part of the policy.

Competent persons
The policy is clear that competent persons have a big role to play and that third party certification is the best method of providing proof of competence, with regard to fire alarms. The policy currently only recognises BAFE SP203 and LPS 1014 as suitable schemes to prove competence in fire alarm systems.

The aforementioned policy was signed by CFOA and the FIA in September 2010 but worryingly several fire brigades are now deviating from the policy primarily because of cuts in their funding.

For example, West Midlands Fire Service’s new policy states that they will no longer respond to calls from ARCs between 08.00hrs and 20.00hrs unless the premises is a specified life risk building. During the remainder of the day they will respond to all calls received through an ARC but with an appropriate level of response depending on the premises type.

A more extreme change in attendance policy comes from Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service who will not attend automatic signals from fire detection and alarm systems in non-domestic buildings between 7am and 8pm unless these signals have been investigated and confirmation of a fire given.

The FIA is very concerned about these changes in attendance policy from fire and rescue services as lives could be put at risk. Also, the uncoordinated nature of the changes makes it very difficult for businesses that operate nationally to manage their fire risks. In addition, the maintainers of the AFA systems need to know of changes in AFA Attendance Policies so that they can advise their clients and make any necessary adjustments to the systems themselves.

In your area
So if you are the person responsible for fire safety in your building and the premises has an automatic fire detection system it would be wise of you to check with your local fire brigade to see if they will attend if an automatic fire signal is sent. If attendance is reduced or in the worst case, non-existent, then you should amend your fire risk assessment in the appropriate manner.

So, if you’re one of those persistent false alarm offenders and changes in fire service attendance to AFA’s isn’t enough to make you re-assess your fire safety management; perhaps financial implications will. If the Localism Bill, which is making its way through Parliament now, is passed it will give Fire and Rescue Authorities, after local consultation, the right if they so choose to start sending out bills for false alarm attendance to persistent offenders.

The FIA estimates that these invoices will be £350 or more per attendance depending upon where you are and how many fire engines arrive at your door. So, if you don’t take false alarm problems seriously you should look out for a bill landing on your desk!

So what happened with Kings College? Well, theirs is truly a success story with the 2010 number of alarms being a third lower than it was in 2007, showing the power of working together with your fire alarm maintenance provider.

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