It is axiomatic: The more smoke detectors present in a given area and the more stringent the safety standards, the better the fire protection provided. This is an unchallenged principle. And yet, the logic does not hold true if carried to extremes. Following any sound theoretical reasoning to its ultimate conclusion inevitably results in fanaticism. Take, for example, the well-established legal principle that the airspace over one’s real estate belongs to the property owner. If the bough of an apple tree from the adjoining property extends over your property line, the fruit on this branch is legally yours to pick. You may, in fact, even saw off the branch. Carrying the logic of this accepted reasoning to its ultimate and extreme degree, however, would allow the same homeowner to shoot down a commercial jet flying overhead.

Can a fire protection system be too stringent? The seemingly heretical answer is yes. Systems that are impractical and rules that are unenforceable generally exacerbate existing unsafe conditions and even produce new ones because they tend to result in public cynicism, noncompliance, and contempt for fire safety in general.

Many years ago, our chief of department, resisting the protestations of several of his line deputies, insisted on approving a fire prevention plan he believed would be the most stringent level of fire safety in one of our high-rise senior citizens’ buildings. In addition to the full sprinkler system, which extended into every apartment and was completely monitored, and the monitored alarm system of pull stations and smoke detectors in the hallways, lobbies, and all other common areas, each one of the 240 apartments would have smoke detectors tied directly to our city’s municipal alarm system. It was this latter requirement against which we advised. It meant that every time an invisible wisp of cooking smoke, a speck of dust, or a microscopic insect crossed the sensing unit of the detector, an alarm would immediately be sent to our central dispatcher, and apparatus would be dispatched.

There are degrees of fire protection. Perhaps the safest possible fire protection in this case might be to have a fully equipped firefighter on duty in every apartment. The opposite extreme would be to have no fire protection at all. Both of these extreme solutions are, of course, unacceptable (not to mention slightly ridiculous). The answer must, therefore, lie somewhere in between. The job is to arrive at that exact point that offers the best level of fire protection with the least number of false alarms, the greatest efficiency, and the least expense.

Single-station, hard-wired smoke detectors in each apartment-backed up by a completely monitored alarm system in all common areas and a monitored sprinkler system throughout, including a sprinkler head in each apartment-appeared to me to reach that point. I thought that tying the smoke detectors in 240 apartments directly to our central dispatcher far exceeded that point. I predicted many false alarms.

I didn’t know how right I was. The day “the chief’s alarm system” went into effect, we began averaging more than a dozen alarms per day from this one building. The first-due engine company, which covered a busy business district, was running itself ragged. What is more, these unnecessary alarms sometimes came in during working fires. It soon became obvious that the number of responses to these alarms, 90 percent of them smoke detector activations for light cooking smoke, was totally unacceptable.

It just so happened that the detector in each apartment had been installed in the hallway adjacent to the open kitchen. Also, many of these apartments were so-called “studios,” which did not have a full kitchen wall. In these studio apartments, the detector was located almost directly over the cooking range and oven. It was as if the designers of the system had wanted to cause false alarms.

Where formerly we had rarely responded to this location, we were now familiar visitors. Where we used to respond with a full response, the sheer number of unnecessary alarms now forced us to arrive with a reduced assignment. Where we had once observed near-panicked occupants exiting their apartments, we now found completely indifferent residents lounging in the community room, playing cards or watching TV. One elderly woman, a jigsaw puzzle fan, took to routinely timing our emergency responses. “Not bad, chief,” she’d call out, sometimes looking up from her large puzzle, as I passed through the community room on my way to the annunciator panel, “under three minutes.” On other occasions, she would criticize: “Almost five minutes this time. A bit slow, chief.”

There used to be a time when we would almost sneak in on an alarm at this complex so we would not upset nervous occupants. As mentioned above, we no longer had to worry about this. The occupants, previously keenly alert to alarm devices, now all but ignored the bells, strobes, and horns, understandably assuming them to be false alarms. In fact, there was now a cynical loss of confidence, not only in the alarm system but with general fire prevention measures and advice as well. The numerous alarms became something of a bitter joke among occupants and firefighters. Nobody allowed the sounding devices to interfere with their daily activities. The occupants’ state of readiness was practically nonexistent. And, yes, the sharpness of the continually responding firefighters suffered as well.

To make matters worse, the building owners resisted our attempts to have them modify the system, even after the chief grudgingly agreed that we were having serious problems and that they would have to spend more money to reduce the number of false alarms. Instead, they blamed the occupants for poor cooking habits and the fire department for its overprotective insistence on all the disruptive detectors; they didn’t blame the alarm company protection planners for the poorly designed system.

Finally, the building management threatened to remove, and subsequently did so in a few cases, cooking facilities from the apartments of those residents who had repeatedly produced false alarms. The next step was eviction. This caused many of the worried elderly residents to ensure that their alarms would not sound by wrapping their detectors with towels. Eventually, this practice actually caused a serious delay of an alarm for a mattress fire in an apartment. Tragedy was barely averted only because of an extremely fortunate series of circumstances.

An engine company had responded to “smoke detector activation on the 12th floor.” The firefighters followed procedure and took the elevator to floor 11, prepared to walk up the final flight. As they exited the elevator, they smelled a strong odor of smoke from burning cloth. The lieutenant called for a full first-alarm assignment to respond. Then he noticed soot on one of the doors. The alarm finally activated after the company had connected the standpipe line. The occupant, an elderly woman, had fallen asleep with a cigarette. She was rescued, but not before the unconscious woman received second-degree burns and suffered serious smoke inhalation. It was just dumb luck that the engine company was on-scene because of a previous false alarm. If not for pure chance, the woman surely would have been lost.

Eventually, following threats, legal actions, and the erosion of good will between the building owners and the fire department, we prevailed to some degree. We got full smoke barriers installed in the studio apartments and other physical and procedural changes that cut down on many of the “false” alarms and made the number and quality of emergency responses if not good at least tolerable.

As this story illustrates, the state of our applied technology and of our practical knowledge of human behavior is far from perfect. While more stringent safety procedures are usually superior to less stringent measures, this is not always the case. The former can be much worse than a more reasonable, and ultimately safer, system.

CHARLES R. ANGIONE, a 25-year veteran of the fire service and former operation chief for the City of Plainfield (NJ) Fire Division, is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to fire service publications. A National Fire Academy alumnus, he is a certified fire instructor and a longtime student, instructor, and practitioner of the incident command system.

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