Should We Stay or Should We Go?

By Wayne Rothbauer

Should we stay or should we go? is a dilemma every fire department faces when personnel respond to an activated fire alarm and find nothing burning. Do you search the entire structure a second time? Or do you reset the alarm panel and return to quarters? What is your department’s policy if you are unable to rest the alarm panel? Following is an account of an activated fire alarm the Hoffman Estates (IL) Fire Department responded to in September 2000 and what we learned.


Our department responded to an activated fire alarm in a one-story office building located within a 15-building complex. Our normal response to such a call is one engine, one truck, and one squad. The building’s fire protection consisted of smoke detectors, pull stations, and a sprinkler suppression system.

The question of liability becomes very important when the owner does not provide access; however, the department has been called and is not able to leave without investigating the activation and resetting the system. And the department cannot conduct a thorough investigation without full access to the building’s interior.

After spending several minutes investigating the fire alarm and having no access to the alarm panel, we asked dispatch to notify a key holder to give us access. This can waste precious time. A much better arrangement is for the owner to use a lock box.


Without a lock box, we had three options: leave the scene and return to quarters, wait for the arrival of the key holder, or break multiple doors to gain access to the alarm panel.

Leave the scene. What types of problems would our leaving the scene create? We would be making a determination without actually verifying what may have activated the alarm. You have no guarantee that there is no fire in the building. The building is not secure if you do not reset the alarm. And if there really is a fire, it will continue to grow until someone sees it and calls the fire department back.

Wait for a key holder. How long is an appropriate time to wait for a key holder to arrive? We all know that fire conditions worsen if allowed to continue, so it is hard to determine how long is too long to wait. When your initial walk-around detects no fire, you really have seen only the outer rim of the building’s layout. How much can you really see through the windows? This is one reason to wait for a key holder. It is the interior rooms that most likely have the hazards-mechanical rooms, utility rooms, and computer rooms.

In this case, dispatch informed us that we would have a 20- to 25-minute wait for a key holder, the building manager.

Force entry to the structure. Is forcible entry really necessary in this case? In reality, the building owners who do not supply lock boxes have already denied access. Thus, they must accept the consequences of a couple of broken locks or doors. Pulling the lock is the least expensive and easiest repair for the owner. If you can’t pull the lock, breaking the door is the next option, but it may gain you entrance to only one area of the building. You might have to break more doors to access the room where the alarm panel is located. After you cause all this damage, what if the forcible entry wasn’t really necessary? We decided to wait for the building manager.

The next question was, Who should wait? Should the entire response remain on the scene? Or should some return to quarters? We released the squad, since it is the initial response apparatus for medical emergencies. We also released the truck, since it is the only truck company for the entire village. The engine remained on the scene to wait for the building manager and reset the alarm; he arrived in 22 minutes and let us in.


Our investigation started with the alarm panel located near the front entrance in the mechanical room. We found a very poorly marked panel that indicated only smoke detector activation, not where it had activated in the building. We found no problem in the first occupancy. Exiting the rear door of the occupancy into the northwest building entrance, we detected a slight odor of smoke. We then obtained additional keys to open the mechanical room. It was full of smoke from floor to ceiling. We closed the door to prevent fire or smoke spread. We relocated the engine to this entrance and requested a code 3 response-bringing back the released truck and squad as well as two engines, one ambulance, and the battalion chief.

The battalion chief assumed command. We determined the smoke was being generated by a fire in the secondary electrical panel in the mechanical room. The first order of suppression was to eliminate the electrical hazard. We did this by turning off the main power supply to the secondary panel. This caused the fire to self-extinguish. Once the chief was confident the fire had not spread, he released secondary companies. The first-in company then escorted the building manager through the building to inspect the damage.


  • You can never leave an activated fire alarm without inspecting the entire building, determining the cause, mitigating the incident, and resetting the alarm system.
  • Is a 20- to 25-minute wait too long? Possibly. Your department must make that determination and establish a policy. This policy gives the incident commander a benchmark by which to work. It also justifies forcing entry and causing damage to the building.
  • If possible, insist on mandatory lock boxes on all buildings that do not have 24-hour on-site management.
  • Should you keep all the initial responding apparatus on the scene until the incident is over? This is a confidence issue. If you are confident you can handle a possible fire until released crews and equipment return, release them. If the potential hazards or a gut feeling tells you that you will need additional resources, keep them.

Wayne Rothbauer, a 19-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter with the Hoffman Estates (IL) Fire Department. His certifications include Firefighter 3, Fire Officer 1, and PADI dive rescue instructor. He has been a paramedic for 17 years.

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