“IT`S JUST AN ALARM DROP!”
BY KAI W. RIEGER
Along with the ever-decreasing number of working fires in the country today, there seems to be an increasing number of alarm drop, or fire alarm, calls. These automatic fire alarms come in to the station in a variety of ways: as waterflow including alarm valves, heat detector, smoke detector, manual pull station alarms, or as any combination thereof. They must be considered as much of an emergency as any other call to which we respond. Since they usually do not result in working fires, it is easy to become lackadaisical toward them. Aside from the fact that this approach is not fair to the owners of the buildings who installed high-priced fire protection systems to warn the fire department early enough so it can respond quickly and efficiently to correct the problem before it becomes major, it is also dangerous.
Until proven otherwise, fire alarms must be treated as possible fires or other serious emergencies. We cannot just go through the motions when responding, expecting that the call will be “nothing.”
SIMPLE FIRE ALARMS THAT RESULTED IN DISASTER
Below are two examples of numerous disasters that started out as alarm calls.
Bay Ridge section, Brooklyn, New York. On March 23, 1990, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) re-sponded to a waterflow alarm. One engine, one ladder, and a battalion chief responded, expecting to find a water pressure surge or a broken sprinkler pipe. On arrival, the companies found a 100-foot-long by 20-foot-high by 12-inch-thick concrete block freestanding wall. The wall was to be part of a second-story addition to a warehouse. It collapsed onto and through the roof of an adjoining one-story, 100-foot by 100-foot ordinary constructed warehouse, breaking the sprinkler pipe and tripping a waterflow alarm.
Two people were killed instantly, and 16 were injured–six of them seriously. This simple alarm drop immediately turned into a massive response and a collapse rescue situation.
Regis Tower, Memphis, Tennessee. The numerous fire alarms from the residential high-rise Regis Tower routinely plagued the Memphis (TN) Fire Department; they usually were resolved by simple remedies.
At 0205 hours on April 11, 1994, the Memphis Fire Department was called for a reported “trouble alarm” on the ninth floor. The first-arriving engine reported “nothing showing.” First-alarm companies observed lights on in most of the ninth-floor apartments and occupants peering out at the firefighters.
The interior crews arrived on the ninth floor to find a well-involved apartment fire. The door leading from the apartment to the hallway was left open, resulting in fire spread and heavy smoke conditions in the hall. The fire alarm for a “trouble” light became a dangerous high-rise fire within seconds.
Fourteen occupants had to be rescued by firefighters, 11 of them requiring aerial ladders. The officer of Truck Company 4 stated: “People were hanging out of windows, some of them by their fingers, desperately waiting for us to rescue them.” The extinguishment time of this multiple-alarm fire was 0317 hours; two civilians and two firefighters died–not at all what we expect when we receive a call for a “trouble” alarm.
APPROACH TO A FIRE ALARM
Taking a fire alarm seriously and being prepared for the worst depends on two factors: mental attitude and physical actions.
Mental attitude. From the moment we receive the call for an alarm drop, we cannot afford to let our guard down. We need to remain open-minded and must anticipate a problem just as we do when we receive multiple calls for an occupied structural fire. In the latter case, our thinking wheels start to turn. What type of building is the alarm for? What are the life hazards? What are the exposure problems? What is the water supply like in that area? What are our forcible entry challenges? The list goes on. These questions should be running through our minds long before we get on the scene. The attitude of “Let`s just drive up to the front door and see what the occupant has to say” does not cut it here just as it wouldn`t on a confirmed fire call.
Virtually every firefighter has responded to a call expecting to find “nothing” only to find on arrival that the situation is entirely different from what was expected–and serious. The expletives start to fly out of the members` mouths as they are caught completely off guard. This happens because no one was mentally prepared because “it was just an alarm drop.”
Now, if you respond to such calls expecting the worst, when you round the corner and see flames blowing out of a window, you will be ready to go to work. There are no surprises and no profanities, because you were mentally prepared.
Physical actions. The appropriate physical actions must accompany a good mental attitude. We must act when we arrive on-scene just as we would if it were a confirmed fire scene until it is proven that there is no problem. Some of these actions include the following:
Gear up for an alarm drop as you do for a reported fire. That means wear your bunker pants, coat, hood, helmet, SCBA, and gloves. If you have your bunker pants on and the rest of your protective gear is in the rig, how prepared are you really? You would be no more valuable at that scene if a fire were to erupt than an educated civilian. Moreover, if we fully dress only for a confirmed fire that occurs once every several months, how quick are we going to be at getting all of our gear on in an emergency situation? I know this sounds crazy, but think about it. No matter how many years we may have been doing a task, we will not remain proficient at it if we do it only seldomly. We will start second-guessing ourselves: Did I hook all of my snaps? Is the strap still on the back of my helmet? Is my air cylinder turned on? Is my radio turned on, and on the correct channel? There is nothing worse than arriving on the scene and having a gallery of people watch you finish putting on your gear. Be ready to hit the street when the air brakes go on.
All working members should be wearing their SCBAs. They need not necessarily be breathing air and wearing their face masks, but the SCBAs should be on their backs, and their facepieces should be with them. If this becomes practice at all alarms involving structures, no one will have to be reminded to don their SCBAs if conditions worsen.
Members must wear their portable radios, and they must be set to the correct channel. If you use fireground channels for fires, use them on alarm drops. If you wait to change channels until later in the incident or until a “working fire” is declared, you may never do it. Some firefighters change channels, and some do not–creating a major fireground fiasco. Go to the fireground channels automatically every time. Avoid radio verbiage such as “It`s probably nothing” or “We get this alarm all the time”; it immediately sets you and other companies up for disaster.
Carry hand tools on the scene just as you would for a fire call. An officer once told a friend of mine as my friend got off the first-due rig at a fire alarm, “You can leave those tools here–you won`t need them.” He was referring to the halligan tool and the flathead ax. When I heard this ridiculous story, I thought, “This guy is a genius! Not many people know what the exact problem is while still standing in the parking lot!” Carry a tool with you. It is one of the most basic principles taught in the fire service. You can stop carrying tools when you are advancing a hoseline alone or when you run out of empty hands.
If your department assigns fireground areas or positions, make sure you are there faithfully on fire alarm calls. If you are assigned to be the roofman, you had better be there for all calls, if applicable. Not only does it keep the whole team in sync, but you will become a pro at inventing different ways to get to a difficult roof. The time will come when your being there will make the difference between life and death.
Several years ago, FDNY firefighters responded to a “smoke in the building” alarm for a multiple-family dwelling in Brooklyn. As the first-due companies arrived, they found a small fire in an apartment; it was quickly extinguished. Immediately after the interior crews announced that the fire was out, new reports came over the radio that a baby had just been thrown out of a rear window because the smoke made residents panicky. The occupants did not have radios to hear that it was a small fire that had been extinguished. They feared a roaring fire in their building. Firefighters quickly found two adults and one teenager ready to jump from the rear windows. One adult was assisted to the ground, as he slid down the coaxial cable attached to the exterior of the structure. The firefighters made immediate rescues of the other adult and teenager before they jumped. As a result, all victims were safe and returned to their respective apartments later that day. If all firefighters weren`t in their exact assigned positions with all their protective clothing in place and with their assigned tools and their radios on–and on the correct channel–there easily could have been three fatalities that afternoon. That is what being prepared for the worst is all about.
Apparatus placement is as critical at alarm drops as it is at confirmed fire calls. It is the blueprint on which the call is built. If all companies parked in a haphazard fashion, there will be guaranteed chaos if the call turns out to be an actual fire. If the truck company is blocked out of the fire building by an engine and a chief`s vehicle, just imagine the mess it would be to try to get the truck in front of the building. Leave room for the truck company. Remember, hose can be stretched; ladders cannot. Do any of us really have time to go back and reposition the rigs in the street if the “trouble” light on the annunciator panel results in a working fire? If you are strict in your apparatus placement on alarms, it will be second nature on a confirmed fire when you are thinking of everything but where to park. Think ahead before you commit your rig to a potentially nightmarish location.
The engine company chauffeur, or driver, at a fire alarm call should be mentally preparing for a working fire. He needs to be reviewing hydrant placement, confirming fire department connection locations, and anticipating any other obstacles or hazards.
The truck company chauffeur, if staying with the rig, should be scanning the area for overhead wires, trees, or parked vehicles that could impede rapid deployment of the aerial device and scanning the building for signs of fire or occupants in distress.
Officers and firefighters have many points to ponder as they enter the block of a reported fire alarm. Taking a mental picture of the building is essential. Look at the building`s height and size, the placement of windows, whether bars are over the windows, and where fire escapes are located, if applicable.
Try explaining to your chief that you got lost and didn`t know where any windows or doors were because “they told us it was just an alarm drop.” If it turns out to be nothing and you are back finishing your meal 15 minutes later, at least it was a great review of the building under very stressful conditions.
RESPONDING TO ALARM DROPS
Following are some practices that will add to the efficiency of responses to most alarm drops in the majority of building types
Listen closely to the dispatch. Hopefully, you will be able to narrow the alarm down to a waterflow alarm, a heat detector, a smoke detector, or a pull station and the location of the alarm–“2nd floor hallway smoke detector” or “utility room pull station,” for example. Hearing those phrases will make your job much easier; it will give you a place to start.
It is best for the companies to split up and complete assignments as they do in a known fire.
If you know where the alarm originated, proceed to that area first to investigate. If you don`t know the area of origin, you will have to start from scratch. If security or maintenance personnel are present, have them provide you with as much information as possible. They know the building`s layout and intricacies better than anyone.
Start at the annunciator panel, which is designed to indicate what and where the problem is. Unfortunately, many alarms are set up in zones and offer little information. It is not unusual to find a message such as “smoke–zone C” on the panel. It tells us nothing. Most fire departments require that a map describing the zones of the building be kept near the panel. It may tell you exactly where the problem is. As this information is acquired, it should be passed on to the incident commander.
Check the sprinkler room for clues. Feel/listen to the water risers for running water. Is there any condensation on the riser pipes to signal moving water? Look at the pressure gauges for pressures that have changed. If the structure has a dry pipe sprinkler system, compare the water and air pressure gauges. If they are equal, the system has tripped and has flowed at least some amount of water. Pressure surges in the water supply system can often cause trips in sprinkler systems. Sometimes something as simple as flowing water from a nearby hydrant will be enough to fluctuate the water pressure and cause an alarm.
Listen for a mechanical water gong. Visually check the gong motor drain to see how much water, if any, has moved. Look for signs of tampering on the water main valve. Many modern valves are fitted with an electronic tamper switch so that the alarm will sound if someone tries to close the valve–a favorite trick of arsonists because it shuts off water to the sprinklers and accelerates the fire before the fire department arrives.
Try to locate the exact cause of the alarm. Check pull stations for a pulled switch or broken glass. Inspect individual smoke detectors to find the one(s) that may have activated. Sometimes you may have to physically check each room and floor to get your answer.
Make sure you briefly interview any individuals near the area in which the alarm initiated. Ask questions such as “Did you see anyone pull a station and run away?” “Did anyone smell smoke in the area?” “Were occupants smoking near the detector recently?” Someone may have bumped a pull station by accident and may fear getting into trouble. Alleviate this fear. Explain that you are there to see what the problem is and that accidents will happen.
Reminder: Until the problem is confirmed, you are still in an investigation mode and are prepared for the worst. Do not “cancel the cavalry” just because you didn`t have flames showing on arrival. By the same token, don`t shed all of your protective clothing, your SCBA, and tools as soon as you get inside the building. Be ready for the unexpected.
After the cause of the alarm is found or remedied, it is time to secure the building and “take up” or return to service. Be very cautious about resetting the alarm system and replacing detector or sprinkler heads. In most cases, if the fire department resets the system or changes a detector or sprinkler head, it assumes responsibility and liability if something is faulty from that point on. Silencing the alarm is different from resetting it. It is generally okay to silence the alarm while you investigate. The exception to this would be when you want the audible alarm to assist you in notifying the occupants.
Once you reset the system, you have erased any prior evidence of a problem. You now must rely on the problem to resurface and trip the alarm again. This is a very risky practice and could be deadly. Changing a sprinkler head and resetting the alarm system states that all systems are problem-free. To avoid liability and a possible future fire, notify the dispatch center that the alarm will be out of service until it is repaired by maintenance or alarm system repair personnel. This forces them to change detector heads and so on, and they now assume liability and responsibility for the alarm or sprinkler system. Notify your fire prevention bureau of the disabled system.
Fire alarms can be a nuisance in any fire department. They have delayed plenty of meals and interrupted many a night`s sleep. It is our responsibility as professionals to keep from falling into the trap of not being prepared for the worst. We all want to get back to bed during a call that sounds like nothing. We must remember our two brother firefighters from Memphis who never made it back to bed. As Vincent Dunn (FDNY, retired) has been stating for years: “If we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.” There will be no magic bell that goes off signaling that this fire alarm will be different. On your next call, don`t get caught off guard because “it was just an alarm drop!” n
1. Goldfarb, Ted., “The Freestanding Wall: A Collapse Waiting to Happen,” Fire Engineering, Oct. 1990, 38-41.
2. Chubb, Mark and Joe E. Caldwell, “Tragedy in a Residential High-Rise, Memphis, Tennessee,” Fire Engineering, Mar. 1995, 49-65.
It is imperative that alarms in large senior-citizen complexes, such as this one, be taken seriously. Due to the size of the building, it is usually difficult to see more than one to two sides of the building. Delayed alarms are common. Firefighters frequently encounter “food on the stove”- and “smoking in bed”-type emergencies that can quickly worsen. Evacuating occupants is a very labor-intensive operation; most tenants will require plenty of assistance. (Photos by author.)
Annunciator panels such as these will give firefighters little, if any, information. Seeing a red light in “zone 4” tells us nothing. Insist that the building`s officials provide a map showing what areas are in each zone.
(1) A typical dry pipe sprinkler riser. (2) The water gauge, located under the clapper valve, is designed to be at a higher pressure than the air gauge (3), located above the clapper. If the readings on the two gauges indicate equal pressures, the clapper was opened and water has moved into the system. (4) Water under the mechanical water gong drain shows that water has moved through the system. A water pressure surge can cause this. If water is continuing to flow through the gong drain, and the gong is sounding, water is currently moving through the system. Expect that a sprinkler head is operating or a sprinkler pipe is broken.
n KAI W. RIEGER, a 10-year veteran of the fire service, is a career firefighter/paramedic with the Jackson Township Fire Department in Canton, Ohio. He has a bachelor`s degree in management and an associate`s degree in fire science. He is a hazardous materials technician and an Ohio state-certified fire instructor.