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Drive down false alarms – consider new technology

Throughout the world there’s a problem with false alarms from automatic fire detection systems. In the UK this problem has come further under the spotlight because of the Localism Bill which, with some caveats, gives Fire and Rescue Authorities the right to charge for attendance. Indeed, London Fire Brigade announced in January 2014 that it was to start charging businesses for call outs if they attend more than ten false alarms in a twelve month period. They issued 100+ invoices within the first 120 days of the new regime!

However, it’s not all bad news with false alarms as official UK government figures show that there has been a steady decline in false alarm numbers over the past ten years and this against the background of ever more systems being installed. Nevertheless, everybody agrees that false alarms are a total waste of the Fire & Rescue Services’ and the users’ time, let alone the money that is involved.

The false alarms problem is further compounded by the absence of a single automatic fire alarm (AFA) Fire & Rescue Service attendance policy in England. This lack of consistency makes it difficult for both end users and fire alarm maintenance companies, whereas in Scotland there is one policy and this has been further reinforced by the setting up of a single fire service. Currently in England only one Shire Fire & Rescue Service attends all AFA signals and that’s Buckinghamshire. Check your fire risk assessment and consult your local fire service if you live anywhere else in England.

Another area of concern is the Weston-Super-Mare Grand Pier fire, where the judgment is certainly of interest to the alarm receiving centre industry. In this case, the judge recommended a ‘default rule’ of calling the Fire & Rescue Service even if the automatic fire alarm signal cannot be confirmed. However, due to the Localism Act, there could be the situation where the Fire & Rescue Service is threatening to charge for a false call and, in extreme cases, take the caller to court!

In view of the continuing false alarm situation the Fire Sector Federation Technology Workstream has brought together a group of stakeholders, including the FIA, to look at the problem in general and its remit is:

  • Clearly identify the problem; look at the data and accurately determine the cause of false alarms
  • Look at what technology is available to provide reliable fire detection
  • Having proved that improvements can be economically made to the fire alarm system, then set about changing the way fire detection is used in the built environment

Once the possible causes for false alarms have been established, the next step is to find ways of using technology to help solve the problem. In order to do this it will be necessary to identify problem sites and to bring the relevant technology, such as recent systems software / hardware updates, to bear.

ifp68_dec16_false_alarms_gs_3A major key to success will be the management of the site and the commitment of occupiers to change what happens in their building. The possibility of Fire & Rescue Services charging may help focus management’s attention here. One idea being promoted by some is that this could be enhanced further if these false alarm charges could be diverted into efforts to reduce the false alarms on a site.

Techniques that can be utilised include on-site filtering; fire warden investigation; multi-sensor fire detectors and perhaps the linking of systems (fire and intruder). Multi-sensors for example, can overcome many issues including hotel shower steam, burnt toast, exhaust in a loading bay and even cigarettes in prisons. The added benefit with multi-sensor fire detectors is that if something changes in the monitored area, the sensor can often be re-programmed to suit the new scenario.

The use of a delay to allow investigation by a fire warden before activation of the general fire alarm can be effective at reducing unwanted alarms. A staff alarm is used to filter these unwanted alarms. In this case following an alarm from an automatic fire detector the general alarm signal is delayed and initially only certain trained staff in the premises are alerted to permit investigation prior to evacuation. Note however that in residential care premises a staff alarm should not incorporate any delay in summoning of the fire and rescue service. Manual call points (MCPs) are configured to override this delay and provide the general alarm. This could also be overridden by coincidence detection. This is when a second detector confirms the fire signal and activated the alarm. Finally if the fire warden fails to arrive within an acceptable time the system will automatically revert to fire alarm condition. In all cases it is important that if the event was an unwanted alarm this is fully investigated and documented and action is taken to prevent a repeat of this type of incident.

A recent study by BRE in conjunction with the FIA looked at 65 fire call out events in Glasgow. This showed that a surprising number of unwanted alarms were caused by the activation of MCPs. To avoid this problem the use of a cover that needs to be lifted before operation of the break glass can be a good solution. Similarly in busy corridors where trollies can sometimes impact MCPs deflector cover plates are available to protect the MCP from damage.

But where do we go next? Today’s fire panels can provide the address data from a detector that has triggered. This could be sent to the fire appliance while on its way to the call. There is also the possibility of linking detection points, e.g. the system may have one point in alarm and two others showing a rapid temperature increase.

All this will cost money to implement but just think how much could be saved year on year without all of the false alarm call outs. 

In order to drive down the number of false alarms, all involved in our industry need to change and come together for a common good, for example:

  • Builders need to fit what is suitable for the building rather than the absolute minimum
  • Installers need to ensure that they understand the building and how it will be used
  • Manufacturers need to develop simple ways to set up and, if required, change the system’s detection parameters
  • Users need to understand what they have fitted, how to best use it and the requirement to change as their business changes
  • Legislators need to understand that calling for the absolute minimum may not be the most cost effective in the long term

And last but not least Fire & Rescue Services need to understand where they fit into the sector.

For more information, go to www.fia.uk.com

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Graham Simons is FIA Technical Manager.

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