More than 223,000 false alarms were attended by the fire service in 2013-14, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The annual cost of attending them is estimated to be up to £1bn. The pressure to significantly reduce the number of false alarms – and the government’s spending on them – is high.
On top of these significant costs there are less obvious risks, such as the safety implications of driving with blue lights. If a fire crew is attending a false alarm, they cannot attend genuine emergencies. In response, some fire and rescue services are reducing the number of engines sent and others have stopped mobilising in response to automatic fire alarms altogether.
However, there are steps businesses can take to reduce false alarms. A big priority for the person responsible for certifying the safety of a building is to ensure that the correct fire alarm has been installed.
This is first and foremost crucial for the safety of the people using the building. The right installation of the most appropriate system will also reduce accidental and malicious alarms. Likewise, technology and training make a big difference.
Quality design, as well as proper installation and regular servicing, is key. Many fire solutions analyse air quality and can be blocked by the presence of excessive dust. Without proper servicing and maintenance, these types of issues may go unnoticed and create future problems.
Each system must also have the appropriate detectors for the environment it is detecting. A heat-detecting system would be inappropriate for a kitchen, for example, as it would generally be much hotter than other areas of the building.
All devices – whether multi-sensor or with thermal or optical sensors – must be supported by a central fire alarm panel. Approved fire alarm installers will be able to determine which device is most appropriate.
Malicious or “prank” false alarms are a further frustrating issue for fire services, especially in schools. For this reason, fire safety systems are constantly being updated to reduce this type of set-off. In some schools, traditional call points are being reduced. Instead, every teacher is given a key and only they can set the alarm off.
Certain systems also incorporate a delay, allowing a fire safety officer to inspect the area that has been flagged as a potential problem before the alarm rings and the building is evacuated. This allows the fire safety officer to confirm whether or not there is need for the fire service to attend.
While these types of new developments in fire safety systems are playing an important role in reducing the number of costly, disruptive false alarms, there are still plenty of factors for an organisation to consider in ensuring it installs the appropriate system for its needs.
By making a comparatively small investment in a system with built-in features to stop an alarm activating without good reason – or, at least, delay it – there will undoubtedly be significant benefits for the individual organisation and the safety of our communities as a whole.
Richard Paine is product manager for the UK & Ireland at Morley-IAS by Honeywell