By Alexander D. Lobeto

We all have heard the story of the boy who cried “wolf,” in which a sheepherder continually calls for help for a nonexistent wolf attack on his flock. After repeated false alarms, the villagers no longer responded to his cry–even when a real attack finally occurred. Disaster eventually happens after complacency sets in. Have we in the fire service fallen for the same scenario with regard to automatic fire alarm responses?

Do we casually answer these electronic calls for help after growing used to the many times we have responded and there was no emergency? Even though the majority of automatic fire alarm calls do not lead to full-blown structure fires, we must not fall victim to the “boy who cried `wolf`” syndrome concerning these types of responses.

Becoming more familiar with the different types of automatic fire alarm systems–focusing on those found in strip malls, townhouses, garden apartments, large covered malls, and private residences–will make us better prepared to mitigate automatic fire alarms within these occupancies.


The primary purpose of automatic fire alarms is to warn building occupants through early detection of fire and the products of combustion. Fire alarm systems warn occupants of fire conditions and alert them to evacuate and call fire suppression forces. Even though some modern fire alarm systems may be extremely complex, their main purpose remains the same–to warn occupants of danger. Many of today`s fire alarm systems go beyond the objective of warning occupants by audible or visual alarm. They can automatically control heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems for smoke control; pressurize stairwells; override elevators for fire department use; activate fire suppression components; and notify fire suppression forces to respond.


Among the types of alarm systems present in many localities are the following:

Local fire alarms. Fire alarm systems are broken down into several types, categorized by their detection and alarm-transmission abilities. A local fire alarm does just what it says. When activated, it announces an alarm only to the area it protects. Alarm-initiating devices–such as smoke detectors, heat detectors, and manual pull stations–installed throughout the protected premises monitor the area and signal the control panel on activation. A local audible or visual fire alarm is then activated to notify occupants, who then notify the local fire department or public safety agency.

Local fire alarms may have the capability to transmit a presignal alarm to occupants before sending a general alarm. The presignal feature is a component of alarm systems that protect environments such as hospitals and nursing homes. It enables the responsible parties at the occupancy to check the area and determine whether additional alarms, evacuation, or fire department response is warranted. Presignal alarms can also be automatically transmitted to a central fire alarm system (discussed below) after a specified time period.

Proprietary fire alarm systems. Found in large, privately owned businesses and corporations that monitor their own fire detection systems, these systems incorporate a series of detection devices installed throughout the premises, as in the case of a local alarm. Once a detection device activates, an electronic or audible signal is sent to a monitoring station staffed by on-site personnel familiar with the alarm operations. These personnel take appropriate action that may include notifying the local fire department.

Central-station fire alarm systems. Central-station monitoring companies do not own the properties they monitor. They generally monitor fire detection systems for many separate property owners. The fire alarm is transmitted over telephone lines to the central-station monitoring company, which then calls the local fire department for mitigation.

Remote stations. Central-station monitoring service is not available in all areas, in which case remote station fire alarm monitoring may be used. This system uses the local fire department or public safety facility as its central station. When fire alarm calls are received directly from various occupancies, fire service personnel are self-dispatched to answer the calls. A municipal fire alarm system can be considered as a type of remote station wherein various geographical areas–instead of particular occupancies–are monitored. The public can activate this system via call boxes that transmit emergency alarms directly to the fire department.


Information describing the different types of fire alarms within the jurisdiction is a valuable resource that, with additional information such as that discussed below, will assist fire departments in mitigating automatic fire alarms.

First of all, you should know which type of fire alarm the occupancy has. Is it an activated local fire alarm servicing a private school gymnasium? Perhaps a central station dispatched the alarm to fire department dispatch and advised of a general alarm. From the address given, does the fire department know that this occupancy is a central-station-monitored apartment building with 50 apartments? The responding fire department`s personnel must use this information for size-up so that an effective course of action can be plotted.

Time is a key factor with each fire alarm system described. The local alarm at the gym, for example, could have been activated by a fire under a smoke detector. The time it takes for someone to hear the alarm could mean the difference between a fully involved building and extinguishment with a fire extinguisher. With central-station monitoring, an alarm to the fire department easily could be dispatched within minutes.

What set standards does your department have for determining what type of and how many fire apparatus should be sent to sites with activated fire alarms in your district? Does Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating play a vital role in this decision? (Our department responds with a minimum of four personnel, which generally translates into two engines, an acceptable ISO response.) What parameters are used to decide effective vehicular and personnel response to these types of incidents? It is imperative to have adequate fire apparatus response to fire alarms–otherwise, your department might become victims of the “cry `wolf`” syndrome.

Once on scene, an incident command structure immediately must be put into place. First-arriving companies should give a clear picture of initial conditions found so that other incoming units will have a chance to formulate possible plans of action. An initial size-up might be: “E.C.C. (emergency communications center). Engine 211 is on scene with a single-story commercial structure. Nothing showing at this time. Engine 211 will be establishing command and investigating.”

Sometimes, the automatic fire alarm is activated by actual fire. Indications on arrival may include activated water-flow audibles (water gongs), evident smoke and/or flame, and information obtained through fire dispatch. The system in this case evidently has done its job, and fire suppression objectives should be primary. In these instances, the cause of the fire alarm activation is evident, and the fire alarm should be left as it is until fire suppression has been completed. Personnel may be dispatched to silence the audible alarm if it hampers communications. It is imperative to ensure all evacuation has been completed prior to silencing the alarm.

Develop a preincident plan of action or standard operating procedure to handle all possible situations when responding to automatic fire alarms. Initial response companies should be prepared to search for the cause of the fire alarm activation, assist with fire protection features (sprinklers and standpipes, for example), and conduct initial fire attack operations.

If initial size-up does not indicate an active fire, investigate to determine the cause and origin of the alarm. If evacuation of the building has not been completed, the officer in command should consider this factor in planning. Communicating with a business owner or complex manager generally will answer most questions concerning the reason the alarm sounded. A good rapport with the fire alarm owner goes a long way when trying to have both parties, the fire department and the owner, achieve what they want. The fire department is concerned with life safety and generally understands the logic behind fire alarm systems. Business owners and complex managers, although usually very understanding of life-safety concepts, are in business to make money. Fire alarm activations usually cause customers to leave businesses and may present a monetary loss to the business owner. It is in the best interest of both parties to be familiar with and empathetic of each other`s objectives. Most often, fire alarms are easily dealt with when they occur during business hours and management representatives are available to assist.

When automatic fire alarms activate in the middle of the night, entry into the structure poses a problem. In this situation, responding companies will find key-box systems an invaluable asset. These secured key boxes hold keys that will enable them to enter the structure and its secured areas to search for the cause of the alarm activation and to access the fire alarm control panel. Mounted on the exterior of buildings, key boxes are within easy reach of fire department personnel. The integrity of the building`s security is maintained since only the fire department and the building`s owner have access to the keys. Another option for facilitating entry is for the fire department to have access to a list of the names and telephone numbers of individuals who have a key to the building, but it can be annoying to the business owner to be summoned at 3 a.m. to unlock a door. Moreover, time is also a critical factor in situations where a real emergency may be present.

Once inside the structure, annunciator panels often are just inside the primary entrance, although, in some cases, they may be on the exterior of the building. These panels offer a quick view of all zones within the structure, including those activated; individual detector components (pull stations and heat and smoke detectors, for example); heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems; and water-flow systems. As personnel are sent to investigate the areas indicated by the annunciator panels, the main fire alarm control panel–the heart of automatic fire alarm systems–can be accessed so the investigation can be continued in other areas.


Once the cause of the fire alarm activation has been determined, the next step is to determine if resetting the system is an option. Many times, no evident cause for the fire alarm activation is found. If the fire alarm within an occupancy activates and a search of the building or buildings reveals that the activated smoke detector was not activated by smoke, should the system be reset at this time? Probably not. Chances are that the system has a malfunction within one of its components. Perhaps the presence of dust and insects may have caused the detector to activate. It is very possible the same detector will activate at a later time if the fire alarm system is reset. If no cause for an activated smoke detector is found and no fire hazard exists, the best course of action is to have the alarm system owner contact a professional fire alarm service company to investigate and correct any problems within the system. The fire alarm system should be silenced and left in the activated mode.

If the cause for alarm activation is evident, such as in the case of an accidental activation of a pull station, reset the fire alarm system. Detection devices such as pull stations and heat detectors generally must be reset before the system can be reset. Smoke detectors, however, will reset themselves once the fire alarm system has been reset. This fact causes many problems for the fire department and the fire alarm system owner. If a smoke detector has activated and the fire alarm system was reset by the owner, the smoke detector also will have reset, leaving no information as to the cause of the alarm.

Sometimes, business employees accidentally or deliberately will reset a fire alarm system without conducting a search for the cause. An employee generally is more interested in silencing the annoying audible alarm and not disturbing the customers than following proper fire alarm procedures. This is definitely not the time to confront the business owner, but look for an opportunity to gainfully educate the owner and employees of the importance of following the proper fire alarm procedures. One method that helps accomplish this is to place on the fire alarm control panel a very visible sticker instructing that the fire alarm system not be reset. If the business owner resets the fire alarm system, record that on your report. An option available with multizoned fire alarm systems is to be able to place an activated zone or detection device out of service without disabling the entire system. This capability ensures that the rest of the zones and detection devices will be available if needed.

Responding fire companies should become familiar with the various types and capabilities of automatic fire alarm systems within their jurisdiction. Armed with this knowledge, they can make decisions that will ensure maximum protection of occupancies.


Once the incident commander is satisfied that no life-safety problems or fire hazards are present, command may be terminated. The conditions the fire department found and the actions they took should be documented. The Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Control District uses the form illustrated on page 97 for the documentation. Information noted includes details pertinent to the cause of the alarm activation and alarm system components. We give the alarm owner or other responsible party a copy of the report, which includes also our instructions and recommendations (if applicable). In this way, we assist the owner in correcting any problems with the fire alarm system. We then follow up to ensure that the corrections are made.


Fire departments can effectively plan for and mitigate responses to automatic fire alarms within their communities if their personnel are familiar with basic automatic fire alarm systems, preplan response guidelines, and document responses to these alarms. In doing so, the departments will help ensure that they will not become victims of the “boy who cried `wolf`” syndrome. n

An activated local alarm system (left) announces an alarm only to the area it protects. Smoke detectors, heat detectors, and manual pull stations, installed throughout the protected premises, monitor the area. When activated, they signal the control panel to initiate a local audible or visual fire alarm, which alerts occupants. (Right) Central-station fire alarm systems transmit an alarm over telephone lines to the central-station monitoring company, which then calls the local fire department. Central-station monitoring companies generally monitor fire detection systems for many property owners. Remote-station fire alarm monitoring is used in areas where central-station monitoring service is not available. Under the remote-monitoring system, the local fire department or public safety facility serves as the central station, and fire service personnel are self-dispatched to answer the calls. (Photos by author.)

(Left) Key-box systems can be invaluable when responding to activated automatic fire alarms in the middle of the night, when entry into the structure is a problem. The key boxes–mounted on the exterior of the structure–hold keys to the structure and its secured areas and the fire alarm control panel and are easily accessible to fire department personnel. (Right) Annunciator panels offer a quick view of all zones–including the activated zone(s)–within a protected structure and indicate the area of the activated alarm. Although most commonly installed just inside the primary entry, the panels sometimes are on the building`s exterior.

(Left) Employees and owners should be discouraged from resetting a fire alarm system without searching for the cause of the system`s activation. Placing on the control panel a highly visible sticker (right) warning that the alarm is not to be reset by occupants serves as a reminder not to reset as well as a notice that fines may be imposed for doing so.

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