Learning From False Alarms

By Jim Nagle

Today's fire service is a busy one. As the number of calls climbs, staffing levels remain steady at best. There are more buildings to inspect and more training requirements. We are being asked to do more with less all the time. As a result, many fire suppression crews may find it difficult to maintain some basic skills and become familiar with the buildings in their response area.

One reason we're busier today than ever is false automatic fire alarm activations. Each year in the city where I work, more and more buildings are built or retrofitted with automatic fire alarms (AFA). On almost every shift, my crew and I respond to false AFA activations. Many view false alarms as nuisance calls or a waste of time, but they don't have to be. Every false alarm offers some excellent training opportunities.

First of all, since AFA false alarms are not false until proven false, they offer us a chance to hone some basic, yet critical skills. For example, apparatus operators have to choose the best route and direction from which to approach the structures and where to position the rig; officers must go through the process of sizing up the building and delivering a radio report on arrival. And, everyone must step off the rig wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and carrying the right tools.

Once the false alarm has been verified, another golden opportunity is often there for the taking—a chance to look around a little. This may be the only chance you have to look at this building strictly from a tactical point of view. Although it's true that you may be back for a medical alarm or a fire code enforcement inspection, they are not the times to be doing a prefire survey. On medical calls, we need to focus on the patient; on fire code inspections, we are looking for violations. Any attempt to throw prefire surveys into the mix is unfair to the citizens we serve. They pay for and deserve 100 percent of our attention in these critical areas.

As for what to look at, focus on the things that will benefit you most should you ever come back to fight a fire. You'll obviously need to find the alarm panel to verify and deal with the false alarm. Other things to look at afterwards include occupant life safety issues, type of construction, parking for best access, forcible entry needs, the presence of other fire protection equipment such as standpipes and sprinklers, and the location of fire department connections.

One thing to consider before you begin your survey is whether there are employees who have evacuated and now need to come back inside. Clear them to return, and ask the manager or owner of the business if it's okay to look around, explaining the need to get familiar with your first-due buildings. In my experience, citizens are happy to oblige.

Chances are that the number of false AFA activations is only going to increase. Take advantage of these opportunities to hone your response skills and to become familiar with the buildings you have not yet preplanned.

Jim Nagle is a captain and hazmat technician with the Everett (WA) Fire Department, where he has served for 13 years.

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