False Fire Alarms: Common Causes (Video)

Posted by Lee Kaiser on Mar 28, 2017 12:45:04 PM

False fire alarms are a costly and potentially life-threatening problem for building owners and fire departments across the United States. In the video below, ORR VP of Engineering Lee Kaiser explains why false alarms are so problematic, the types of costs that these lead to for businesses and taxpayers, and identifies possible reasons why they could happen.

Video Transcript

Lee: "If you have a rodent problem causing a false alarm problem, you need to be in another seminar, but we're gonna talk about other types of false alarms caused by normal reasons. They're a problem, especially for fire departments because they're about every 1 in 12 calls throughout the United States as an average. While firefighters respond to your false alarm call, the risk is there could be a real fire or real emergency on the other side of town and that could delay their response. Depending on where you're at, that's a bit issue. As a taxpayer, false alarms consume a lot of public resources. They waste money and one way that fire departments have addressed the drain on public resources is they have reduced response procedures. 

I want to say 5 to 10 years ago this became very common. Fire departments wrote new procedures, sending less trucks and less people to automatic alarm calls where there's not a confirmed fire. Chances are it's probably just the alarm system going off again and it's not really a fire. That's how fire departments have changed because of the false alarm problem.

It also causes an issue with the public. There was a researcher, she was a fire protection engineer, PhD in human behavior and her life's work was studying human behavior to fires. She studied how people respond to alarm systems. The research that she did showed that in a building, after three false alarms people become apathetic. They tend not to respond. The phrase was they resist evacuation of the building because there's a cry wolf syndrome that we've basically made in the building.

That's why false alarms are a big issue, not only for fire departments responding to them, but it's also a big issue for fire departments that have buildings in their jurisdiction with a lot of false alarms. They can make sure that the people that occupy that space don't become apathetic to those alarms that happen in the building because one of those times it really could be a fire." 

Business Repercussions

"For business owners, I think about productivity losses. If your employees are not in the seats and they're actually out standing in the street because the alarm went off for the second time that month, you're not taking phone calls from your customer. They're not being productive. You're losing money, so there's an issue from a business owner's perspective for lost productivity. The government finds creative ways to raise revenue and one of the ways they've done that is through alarm ordinances. When a building has three strikes, you're out and the rule is enforced. After three false alarms, they’re gonna start charging you as they come to your building.

If fire departments and the people that actually enforce those fines are pretty lenient, if they see that you're making steps to try and improve your system, to try and stop having false alarms, then they may waive some fines for you. But if you're not making any efforts as a building owner then they're going to start to enforce those ordinances and cost you money."

Leading Causes of False Alarms

"In 2012, in the United States, there were 2.2 million false alarms. It sort of broke out like this: This top blue line is the total number of alarms and this graph ranges from 1988 to 2012. Data is provided by National Fire Protection Association. We can see that there's an increasing general upward trend of false alarms in this country. Now this data down here breaks out why those happen. Let's look at this yellow line here.

That's due to malfunctions. Things were increasing with malfunctions until about the year 1999, and then we're sort of on a slight downward trend. As a fire alarm professional, I get kind of excited about that because I know that maybe we're making a difference and improving the installed system base out there so we don't have false alarms as much due to the system.

Another thing that's increased significantly is this light blue line for unintentional. Something happened to the building. We didn't mean for it to happen but it caused a false detection and therefore a false alarm to the building. This pink line is the category of malicious. So this is a punk kid pulling the pull station to set off the system. That's been going down. Maybe public education has helped that. I think probably iPhones have given them something else to do, so that's why that's going down. It interrupts the time on Facebook or something like that.

In 2009 we see 45 percent were unintentional, 32 percent were malfunctions, and malicious was 8 percent. Generally the trend, unintentional is on the rise, malfunctions are slightly down, and malicious is down. Another important statistic for fire departments between the year 1999 and 2009, 29 firefighters were killed responding to false calls. We have a responsibility as anybody who touches a fire alarm system to help improve those system statistics to keep the fire department safe and improve public safety."

Different Approaches to Different Causes

"What do we do? We've got 6 steps to go through, 6 options for you on reasons you may be having a false alarm within your building. The first thing is to retrain personnel. Remember that category of unintentional? I'm guessing the unintentional category in the United States is going up because more and more buildings are having alarm systems installed, which more and more people are interacting with.

In this building, if you go up to one of the microwaves, we've got a sign on there that basically says, "Thou shalt not pop microwave popcorn". The reason is, once in a while somebody burns the popcorn and not only does it make the building stinky, but you see these smoke detectors up there. We set off our own building once in a while. We don't want that to happen, so we don't allow people to use microwave popcorn in the building. That's one example of how we could retrain a person to not do that thing that caused that false detection within a building.

Just one example of a change in operating procedure. Let's say you work in a building that once in a while you have to do a dusting procedure. Maybe you have a room that gets dusty and you sweep it up, but there's a detector in there or something like that. Well maybe vacuuming was a better way to clean and that's a different change in procedure, or moving that detector. Maybe I shouldn't have a detector in that room that gets very dusty. Which brings me to this slide here. We like to say that for smoke detectors location's everything."

This is part one of Problem 4: False Fire Alarms. In the next installment, we will discuss where a smoke detector should be placed to minimize false alarms. If you're interested in learning more about other fire protection topics, click the button below to sign up for one of our Seminars. Topics discussed include the latest fire protection technology and the path to corrosion-free sprinkler systems.


"Causes and Cures: Top 7 Fire Protection Challenges" Seminar Videos Index

Problem 1: How to Operate Your Fire Panel

Problem 2: Causes and Cures for Trouble Signals

Problem 3: Failure to Detect a Fire


Topics: Alarm Notification, Fire Alarm

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