Where there`s an alarm, there could be a fire
Chicago (IL) Fire Department
This is in response to Gordon Wren, Jr.`s request for information on the procedure for fire alarm activations (Letters to the Editor, March 1997). I know of no set, written procedure in this area because the problem is complex. I can, however, present the following real-life scenarios that illustrate the dilemma we all face at incidents involving automatic fire alarms. As a member of the Chicago (IL) Fire Department, I have spent some time downtown in the high-rise section. Automatic alarm calls are constant due to alarm malfunctions and occupants` actions.
No one but an officer who responds to an automatic alarm knows the mixed feelings [experienced] about what should be done. The lawyers who will crucify you for which-ever decision you make are never on the scene with you for consultation. The chief, back at the office or at home asleep, because it is 3:30 a.m., will crucify you when he gets all the information. They all know what should have been done. You did not have that option when you were on the scene …. We must be legally, politically, and morally right. All the rights in the world are sometimes wrong!
On one response to a five-story mixed occupancy with a restaurant in the lower level and offices on the second through fifth floors, nothing was showing on arrival. I asked if a key holder or runner were coming. (A runner is an alarm-service employee who responds so that we can enter to investigate. The alarm companies do not use many runners because of the cost; they use us. If we get there and something`s wrong, then they send someone out.)
Before the truck arrived, I had ascertained that the owner of the restaurant did not know anything about the alarm. When the truck arrived, I had an officer position a ladder so we could look in the windows and find a way in. He was concerned about the possibility of “breaking something” over a “false alarm.” I told him I wanted to get into the building because a restaurant was in operation downstairs, the audible alarm was still ringing, and the upper floors apparently had been remodeled. He reluctantly had his crew ladder the building.
We looked in and found nothing showing and no open windows. I then asked for help in opening the front plate-glass doors by prying the corners at the point at which the lock catches the center floor latch. Again, the officer voiced concern about causing damage in case “it`s a false alarm.” I explained that as the officer of the engine and the one responsible for filing the NFIRS (National Fire Incident Reporting System) report, I wanted to enter the building. The door was opened without causing any damage … we detected a smell of burning plastic. As we searched for the source, the officer told me that the reason for the present remodeling was a fire that had occurred in an office a few months ago. Nothing was showing when the department responded to an automatic alarm at that time; the responders left, asking the restaurant people to watch upstairs. The restaurant personnel later smelled smoke, and the fire was found.
We now arrived at the coffee-break area and found that a large commercial coffee station had been left on. The coffee burned out of a small coffee pot that was on the hot plate. The plastic handle melted, ran down onto the hot plate, created smoke, and triggered the automatic alarm ….
In another incident, we received an automatic-alarm call to a residence while we were out checking hydrants. We walked the half block to the structure and arrived as the fire engine pulled up. I gave my on-scene report: “Engine 120 on the scene of 112-story ordinary constructed residence. Nothing showing.” The report was to change.
We looked at the house and saw that a five-foot fence around the property was enclosing three large dogs that were not happy to see us. We hesitated to enter the yard, so we walked around to a neighbor`s yard. We saw nothing. I talked to the neighbor, who reported that the lady just left to pick up her kids from school and that she should be back shortly. Our response on an automatic residential alarm is one engine and one truck. I returned the truck as it arrived on the scene and told the dispatch office we would wait for the owner, who should arrive shortly.
While we were standing out in front of the house waiting, smoke began to come from under the eaves at the rear of the house. Talk about a surprise! I called for the truck to return. As two neighbors called the dogs to one corner of the yard, we charged into the yard and kicked in the front door (to get away from the dogs). We encountered smoke down to the floor. We made our way to the kitchen to find that dinner was going real good on the stove, along with two overhead cabinets. We quickly knocked down the fire with two hand pumps and opened the windows to ventilate.
When the owner came home, we told her what had happened. She said she would rather replace the door that was knocked down than all her possessions. If I would have left the scene, I don`t think she would have been so understanding. Can you blame her?
I responded to the third incident as a member of a volunteer department. We were toned out for an automatic alarm to a residence. The police arrived before us, entered, serviced, and reported that it was a false alarm and there was no need for the fire department. As the fire officer, I undertook an investigation with a crew of four. No key holder was listed. We walked around the house … and could hear the alarm still sounding. We could not look inside from the ladder because shades and curtains blocked our view. The police officer left …. I went up to the door to ring the doorbell. As I opened the mail slot, I got a whiff of burning food. I ordered my crew to go back to an open window we had seen and to carefully cut the screen and flip in to open the front door.
The firefighter on the ladder reported that a lady was on the bed and appeared to be asleep with the door closed and the television blaring. Yelling did not awaken her. She responded to a gentle poke with the pike pole (handle-end first). I instructed the firefighter to be careful–in case she might turn and shoot him (you just never know). When he touched her with the pole, she jumped and started screaming until she saw that he was a firefighter. He told her to carefully check her door [for smoke and heat] before opening it and to let us in …. When she opened the front door, there was a slight haze of burnt food smoke from some hot dogs that were now carbonized in the pan on the stove. She became excited and yelled to the crowd that had gathered about to watch that we had saved her from certain death … and that we were nice not to break down her door ….
In this job, you don`t always have procedures. You are expected to make decisions that might not always be accepted by the public or management …. I will not leave a call … until I can assure myself that there is no fire in the building. I will get into the building any way I can, trying to do as little damage as possible. I always try to contact a key holder or runner or wait for the owner to return if the anticipated return time is short …. I will not become the fall guy. Leaving an alarm that turns out to be a fire that had been there all along cannot be justified …. Unless I am directed to do otherwise by someone who will ultimately assume the responsibility, I`m going in ….