Three-Step Method to Reduce Unnecessary Alarms

BY PETER BRYAN

For many fire service agencies, the demands for service are rapidly exceeding the available resources. Many times, fire alarm or fire sprinkler monitoring systems initiate responses. Often, those responses are not necessary based on the conditions responding personnel find, such as steam, food cooking, construction dust, or some other situation causing the unwanted alarm. The fire service wants to have the correct resources available when an actual structure fire condition occurs. The fire alarm system industry wants building occupants to respond appropriately to alarm signals and to have confidence in fire alarm signals. A public-private partnership can provide support for the industry’s and fire department’s needs and at the same time reduce unwanted responses.

The fire protection community, comprised of the fire service and the fire alarm industry, must appreciate the need and the benefits of reducing the number of unnecessary responses to alarm system-initiated incidents so it can deliver the needed resources to the rapidly increasing actual emergency demands.

Determining the interested stakeholders is the first task. Inviting the interested persons and agencies to meet to discuss the issue can open up communications and develop long-lasting relationships. Additionally, many of the newly formed relationships will benefit fire departments for years and assist the fire service with future needs.

THREE STEPS TO SUCCESS

Below is a three-step method for discussing and reducing unwanted responses. Meet with stakeholders and determine the program’s agreed-on basic concepts for reducing unwanted responses.

1 Determine alarm system upgrade standards, publish them, and authorize alarm companies to complete phased-in work. Fire departments can work with the business community and the property owners/management to advocate for needed alarm system improvements/upgrades, explaining the reasons these system upgrades are needed. Following are some alarm system design provisions that have been beneficial to fire departments.

  • Program smoke detectors for alarm verification so that the alarm panel communicates with smoke detectors to confirm the likelihood of actual fire conditions.
  • Install manual pull covers in all areas accessible to the public.
  • Set water flow devices to delay activation for 45 to 60 seconds.
  • Replace smoke detectors in appropriate locations with heat/thermal detectors.
  • Ensure smoke detectors are tested for sensitivity according to the manufacturer’s recommendations and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.
  • Require “testing, maintenance, and response” provisions in a contract between the protected property and the alarm company.
  • Require systems to be “documented” (i.e., certificated or placarded) by a central station service company. Three services can provide documentation: Underwriters Laboratories, Factory Mutual, and Intertek’s ETL. The Central Station Alarm Association offers a good guide to documented requirements, A Practical Guide to Fire Alarm Systems, at www.csaaul.org/CSAAPublications.htm.
  • Develop local agency fire alarm system standards that can include provisions covering national standards; permit and inspection requirements; general conditions of approval; initiating devices; the fire alarm control panel; appliances; and maintenance, testing, inspection, and runner service.

2 Develop a premises inspection program for all businesses with fire alarm systems to ensure system improvements, determine any needed permit fees for alarm companies to fund the necessary staffing, and implement the program. Develop an inspection program to ensure that the system improvements and upgrades are completed. Such a program will necessitate appropriate staffing. Failure to ensure that the systems meet the appropriate standards will mean that the unwanted responses most likely will continue.

  • Compile a list of alarm companies serving your community. These companies may be required to maintain business licenses or may be members of the local Chamber of Commerce or other business organizations. The fire alarm company associations in each state can be of great assistance.
  • Compile a list of building locations protected with alarm systems or fire sprinkler system monitoring.
  • Determine the need for an annual alarm company fee to fund the inspections, based on the number of premises locations and “time-and-motion” studies to verify the appropriate staffing.
  • Develop a premises inspection program in conjunction with the alarm industry.
  • Implement an annual fee for inspections, and conduct inspections of premises equipped with alarm systems.
  • Issue an inspection report at the time of the annual business inspection or at the fire alarm premises inspection. Provide the business/premises with an information sheet at the time of any inspection that explains the reasoning for the system upgrades.

3 When responding to alarm-initiated incidents, determine the most plausible reason for system activation, and bill the contractor, the business/premises, or the alarm company as appropriate.

  • Determine the most plausible reason for the response in conjunction with the alarm company.
  • Determine that system upgrades are not yet completed and issue an inspection report to the occupant.
  • Bill the responsible party for response. This is a key factor; billing the appropriate responsible party (not always the alarm company) will build strong relationships with the alarm industry. Often, the response bill will be the responsibility of a contractor doing work or the business performing some operation that activated the system causing the unwanted incident response and did not advise the alarm company.

Fiscal Implications

Developing a fee for unnecessary alarms with a zero tolerance will quickly reduce unwanted responses. When the system malfunctions, the alarm company is responsible; contractors are responsible when their actions result in an unnecessary alarm, and the occupants are held responsible when their actions cause the alarm. Appropriate cost recovery fees are billed for fire apparatus and personnel. A permit fee can be based on the number of accounts the company holds, since the number of systems seems to be proportional to the number of false alarms. The permit and the fees are not used as a revenue stream; they are the means to effect a reduction in response costs.

ONE FIRE DEPARTMENT’S EXPERIENCE

The experience of the Rancho Cucamonga (CA) Fire District proved that such a program is feasible when all interested stakeholders come together. After the district contacted the California Alarm Association and the California Fire Alarm Association, the concerned parties set up meetings to converse and determine mutual interests. Both the industry and the fire department were interested in reducing unnecessary alarms and responses.

The California alarm industry was essential to the program’s success and was integrally involved from the beginning. A joint committee of the fire department and alarm system representatives was formed to develop comprehensive fire alarm standards incorporating the requirements of NFPA 72, the California State Fire Marshal, and the local requirements for fire alarm systems’ installation and maintenance.

In accord with the cost recovery recommendations above, the agency issues permits to each alarm company, basing permit fees on the number of accounts each company holds. The fire department’s alarm response cost recovery fee with zero tolerance policy charges the fee to the responsible party whose actions caused the alarm-the alarm company, the contractors, or the building’s occupants.

An on-duty fire inspector responds to all alarm incidents, determines the most likely cause for an unnecessary alarm, determines the cost, issues a Notice of Payment Due, and determines if follow-up is appropriate. The fire inspector identifies alarm system deficiencies during the response and initiates repairs or corrections either immediately or much sooner than otherwise.

The number and response code of apparatus were also reduced unless a “confirmed” or “likely” incident was occurring. The closest apparatus and fire inspector respond; nonemergency Code 2 apparatus respond to commercial alarms and emergency Code 3 apparatus to residential alarms.

After nine months of operation, the number of responses dropped from 816 to 711. Compared to the nine months preceding this period, this was a 12.87-percent reduction. Further incident response data are expected over a greater time period, perhaps two to five years.

PETER BRYAN, a retired chief and a fire protection consultant, is a 37-year veteran of the fire and emergency services. He served as chief for the Norco, Monrovia, Rancho Cucamonga, and Wheatland (CA) fire departments. He is experienced in fiscal management, revenues, and fees and in wellness, fitness, and workers’ compensation programs.

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