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January 22, 2008

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An inconvenient untruth

Automatic fire detection systems have saved thousands of lives over the last 60 years but, by generating false alarms, they’ve also resulted in a huge waste of time and resources. Recent developments in legislation and technology are now addressing this issue, says Don Scott.

During 2005, the Fire Service received no fewer than 439,100 false alarm calls. People who mistakenly believed they had found a genuine fire generated some of these, while other calls were purely malicious. But the overwhelming majority – 285,200 – were so-called ‘due-to-apparatus’ alarms, i.e. those generated by automatic fire protection systems when no fire was actually present. Due-to-apparatus alarms in non-domestic premises now outnumber real fires by 10 to 1.1

It is estimated that 1.3m new detectors are sold each year, so given these numbers the high level of false alarms is, perhaps, unsurprising. Indeed, most detectors still use technology that has poor immunity against false alarm phenomena. Nevertheless, it is clear that false alarms caused by apparatus are a significant drain on Fire Service resources, and that there is a compelling need to address this issue.

Poor regulation

One problem is that the UK market for fire alarm installers has been poorly regulated. As there is nothing to stop unqualified individuals from setting up as fire engineers, it is hardly surprising that the issue of false alarms due to apparatus has grown to such large proportions.

In the past, governments have been reluctant to regulate the industry, on the grounds that it would stifle competition. But, under the provisions of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety Order (FSO)), which came into force in 2006 and which consolidates all major fire safety provisions into a single document, fire brigades can now charge for responding to false alarm calls. In practice, such charges are likely to be imposed only in the most extreme cases, but there are other sanctions that can be used against those responsible for generating excessive numbers of false alarms.

The FSO reaffirms the responsibility for fire safety in non-domestic premises, with the onus placed squarely on the shoulders of the ‘responsible person’. Following the abolition of fire certificates, the fire risk assessment, which was introduced under the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations, is now the central focus of legislative compliance.

The Order also grants fire brigades increased powers to undertake investigations and, ultimately, to take legal action against responsible persons for persistent breaches in compliance.2

Graded response

Another key change is the introduction by fire brigades of an integrated risk management policy for deciding what level of response to provide for alarms from particular premises. In the past, the level of response was based entirely on the type of premises – school, hotel, hospital, etc. – but under the new policy, it is based on a more detailed assessment of the risks involved.

Even after the initial assessment has been completed, the level of response to automatically generated alarms is not fixed. Under a policy set by the Chief Fire Officers’ Association (CFOA), response can be downgraded for installations that produce more than an agreed number of false alarms over a rolling 12-month period.

The actual number of acceptable false alarms depends on the size of the installation. For example, an installation with 1000 detectors should not produce more than 16 false alarms over 12 months. However, for a smaller system with only 300 detectors, the permissible number falls to just five false alarms over the same period.

Provided that these numbers are not exceeded, the fire brigade will offer a level 1 response to automatically generated alarms. This means that the appropriate number of fire engines, decided by the risk assessment, will be dispatched under full emergency conditions.

If an excessive number of false alarms is logged from a particular site, however, the service is initially downgraded to level 2. In such cases, the same number of fire vehicles is dispatched but under non-emergency conditions, which means that they can be diverted if a more urgent alarm call is received. If excessive false alarms persist, the final stage is downgrading to level 3, where the fire brigade will only attend after a confirmed 999 call.

Potential consequences

The decision to downgrade response is not taken lightly. The fire brigade communicates regularly and at every stage with the occupier/owner of the premises, warning of the problem and the consequences of failing to take remedial action. Only if such warnings go unheeded is the response level downgraded.

The implications go further than reduced fire protection cover. It is a requirement that the insurers of the premises are informed if fire cover is downgraded which, at the very least means that premiums will rise, and could even lead to difficulties in securing insurance at any price.

It can also be argued that the potential savings of this graded response policy are not only financial. Deployment of a single fire truck to investigate a call would allow additional vehicles to remain on standby to deal with other emergencies. Also, limiting the number of vehicles rushing to attend a call could be regarded as beneficial from the perspective of road safety. Nevertheless, the CFOA policy remains highly contentious, and it is unlikely that it will ever receive blanket approval.

Another important consideration is that the FSO dictates that a fire alarm installation must be fit for purpose and, by definition, a system that generates an excessive number of false alarms cannot be described as such. As always, the responsibility to ensure an installation is fit for purpose falls to the responsible person defined by the FSO, who could ultimately find themselves liable to prosecution.3

Human costs

If the prospect of legal liability and reduced response levels were not enough incentive to find ways to minimise false alarms, owners of premises should certainly be motivated by the human and operational consequences of false alarm incidents.

More false alarms are generated in hospitals and student halls of residence than any other type of premises. However, the concept of integrated management assessment response to such buildings is controversial because of the potential for large numbers of casualties in the event of a genuine fire.

The disruption resulting from false alarms in hospitals is self-evident. While the main aim of fire detection is to provide early warning so that premises can be evacuated, this is highly problematic where a large proportion of the resident population is bedridden – and almost impossible when the hospital is a high-rise building on an inner-city site.

In halls of residence, false alarms caused by steam, cigarette smoke and burnt toast occur on a regular basis, but those with a duty of care are unlikely to want to delay evacuation until an investigation has taken place because so many lives are potentially at risk.

In hotels, restaurants and retail units, the potential for large-scale casualties in a fire has to be balanced against the financial implications of false alarms. The choice and management of fire detection systems has an immediate impact on a business’s bottom line. The cost of shutting down manufacturing or electronic trading processes can, in some cases, be calculated in millions of pounds per hour. In such instances, the only acceptable form of fire detection is one that offers total immunity to false alarms.

With the latest technology, this is now a realistic objective. Today’s intelligent fire detection systems can reliably distinguish between real fires and phenomena such as burnt toast and cigarette smoke – but the continuing rise in false alarms is a reflection of people’s attitudes to the whole issue of fire detection.

A grudging purchase

At worst, people perceive detection and alarm systems as passive technology, which is only put in place to comply with legislation – until, that is, a genuine fire occurs. Typically, organisations are motivated more by cost savings, and will invest the minimum amount necessary to meet their legal obligations.

However, the spectre of charges for false alarm call-outs, coupled with the increased focus on the system user’s responsibilities and the risks of prosecution for responsible persons and maintenance companies, are changing these negative attitudes. In relation to false alarms, availability of technology is no longer the issue. Instead, it’s the proper application and management of appropriate technology – underpinned by new legislative requirements – that will ultimately reduce false alarms.

Over the past few years, the building blocks for the new environment of fire-system user responsibility have been laid down. The LPS 10144 and BAFE5 schemes now provide frameworks for independent evaluation and certification of system suppliers. Despite the unregulated nature of the UK fire industry, use of a certified supplier enables each organisation’s ‘responsible person’ to be sure that their system is designed, specified, manufactured, installed and maintained to the appropriate British Standard. This is clearly demonstrated by the close connection between the BAFE certification scheme and British Standard BS 5839 Part 1:2002 – Certification Requirements.

There are also provisions contained in section 3 of BS 5839 Part 1:2002, which require system users to undertake investigations with their maintenance company if specified false alarm rates are exceeded. Compliance with these provisions must be included in the fire risk assessment, and ensures adherence to the basic pre-requisites of a fire detection system demanded by insurance companies.

Role of suppliers

Suppliers accredited by the Loss Prevention Certification Board and BAFE also have a role to play, not only in delivering standards of competency that will enable system users to meet their legal obligations but also in making it easier for them to achieve an acceptable balance between false alarm immunity and risk protection.

Perhaps the time has come for detector manufacturers to grade their products in terms of response to specific false alarm phenomena in order to help specifiers make a more educated assessment of the risks associated with choosing one product over another. An assessment of the ability of a detector not to trigger an alarm in response to certain conditions would give users a choice as to the degree of false alarm immunity on offer, balanced against the overall cost of the system.

A grading scheme of this type would also give business owners a better understanding of the consequences of opting for a particular detector, based on either short-term capital cost or long-term operational needs.

Accredited suppliers can not only help the user make all the right choices in the first instance but also manage the system in a way that will avoid the various negative issues described above. By taking this responsible course of action, the ‘responsible person’ can greatly reduce the potential for false alarms.

References

1 Department for Communities and Local Government: Fire statistics UK, March 2007

2 For more details on the FSO, see Paviour, Harry (2007): ‘Order form’, SHP November 2007, pp 56-58

3 See Appleby, Mike (2008): ‘In the line of fire’, SHP January 2008, p19

4 For more information go to: www.redbooklive.com

5 For more information go to: www.bafe.org.uk/fire_protection/

bafe_adopted_schemes_fpc.html

www.bafe.org.uk/fire_protection/

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