False Alarms Can Be Reduced

False Alarms Can Be Reduced

New York City’s Pilot Campaign Proves

First Comprehensive National Effort to End Evil Starts; Education Plus Enforcement Motivates Manhattan Tests


Editor’s Note: At its Houston, Tex., Conference last year, the Board of Directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs approved a nationwide campaign to reduce the number of false alarms.

At the same time, the Association accepted the recommendations of its Committe on Communications, headed by the author of this report, that special sub-committees be appointed to direct and effectuate the false alarm drive and the whole placed under the direction of Thomas P. O’Brien, Deputy Chief in Charge, Bureau of Fire Communications, New York Fire Department.

This was done, and the following SubCommittees appointed:

Sub-Committee on Nomenclature and Terminology—Chief Lewis A. Marshall, Providence, R. I., Chairman; George Swan, Asst. Engineer, National Board of Fire Underwriters; George Richardson, Secy.-Treas. International Association of Fire Fighters and Warren Y. Kimball. National Fire Protection Association.

Sub-Committee on Legal and Jurisdictional Phases — Chief Stuart Potter, Greenwich, Conn., Chairman; Chief Robert Bogen, Baton Rouge, La.; Chief Joseph Giammatteo, Glen Echo, Md., and Chief Wayne Swanson (V. Pres. I.A.F.C.), Rockfield, I11.

Sub-Committee on Research and Survey—Chief Forrest Lucas, Dayton, Ohio, Chairman; Chief Edward MacDonald, White Plains, N. Y.; Chief Eugene Fields, Omaha, Neb., and Chief Fred Wells (formerly of Fargo, N. D.).

This drive got under way in the Spring of 1955 and was spotlighted by a “pilot” false alarm campaign inaugurated by the New York Fire Department under its Fire Commissioner, Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., and Deputy Chief Thomas O’Brien to determine certain basic facts essential to the establishment of any country-wide effort.

The results of this trial program were surprising, so much so that, to quote Commissioner Cavanagh, “the procedures which effected this achievement in the East Harlem area have been extended to sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx.”

This special report covers the fundamentals of this experiment. An elaboration of the report will be delivered to the International Association of Fire Chiefs at its forthcoming Conference by the committee chairman R. B. Woolley.

The editors are grateful to the I.A.F.C., through its Committee on Communications and its several before-mentioned Sub-Committees, as well as to the New York Fire epartment for the facts concerning the latter’s “pilot” effort.

It is the hope of the author, and the I.A.F.C. Committees, concerned with reducing the calamitous number of false alarms in this country, that fire forces everywhere will apply the principles and ideas advanced in this report to solving their own local false alarm problems.

EVER since the advent of the public street fire alarm system, malicious false alarms have been a serious threat to the fire service, both permanent and volunteer. Many fire officers consider the false alarm evil the worst blot on the escutcheon of the service.

At various times in the past half century, the International Association of Fire Chiefs has recognized this evil and has recommended that something be done to correct it.

Review of the history of such efforts, however, fails to disclose any very serious or comprehensive national endeavor to that end. Such attempts to reduce the number of false alarms as were tried were, for the most part, local in extent and of sporadic nature—not persisted in for any length of time, and ineffectual as a consequence.

It is not the purpose of this study to attempt to analyze the failures ot most of those efforts, for most of them fell far short of their mark, except to point out that the majority failed at the outset because they were predicated upon a misinterpretation, or a lack of clear interpretation, of what constitutes a false alarm.

This fact, together with such other handicaps as public (and in some cases fire service) indifference; lack of cooperation between civic and public authorities and groups with the fire department; lack of appreciation of the gravity of the problem by the courts; absence of laws and ordinances under which suitable punishment of perpetrators could be meted out; difficulty of apprehending culprits; and even more important, difficulty of convicting those who were apprehended, have thus far discouraged any serious effort on a broad scale to curb the trouble.

Tragedy of the false alarm. Lifeless form of little girl lies on pavement following collision between private car and aerial responding to false alarm.

Meanwhile, more fire fighters and civilians continue to be killed or injured, more apparatus wrecked, and fire suppression activities made more complicated, because of the increasing number of false alarms, both by telephone and municipal alarm box system.

Measured in terms of economic loss to municipal government, these false calls are a serious drain on the treasury. They also constitute a direct threat to Fire Fighters and to fire control operations, as every chief knows. Any way you view them, they are “bad business” for fire service.

Recently, the question of false alarms has been related to certain systems of fire alarm communications, with emphasis on municipal street alarm boxes, to the detriment of the latter.

The controversy over one type of fire alarm transmission system, as compared with another, has involved the taxpayers, as well as the officials of many municipalities, and the fire service in conflict, confusion and general misunderstanding. This situation has worsened as well-intentioned, but misguided and misinformed persons (some of them within the fire service itself) have advocated drastic and costly changes in the long-established fire department communications system, some of which “cures” cannot by the fondest stretch of the imagination hope to eliminate the false alarm evil, but which can constitute a serious potential hazard to fire department operations if carried out as advocated.

Fire forces of every city, town, village or hamlet are today encountering increasing obstacles to their prompt response to emergency calls. The mileage of travel is continually on the increase and, with it, the danger of highway collisions and other accidents to apparatus and firemen. The percentage of false calls being answered by fire forces likewise has shown alarming increases in some areas and has been the direct cause of not only traffic accidents, which have resulted in death and injury to fire fighters and citizens, but has further intensified the nation’s traffic blocks and confusion.

As one leading fire chief expresses it: “It is hard enough on fire fighters today responding to and returning from legitimate calls for assistance without having to run the added hazard of additional maliciously transmitted false calls.”

Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, the International Association of Fire Chiefs gave its Committee on Communications the green light to set up additional sub-committees which would study the whole false-alarm problem, and come up with specific recommendations. The Association’s Board of Directors fully appreciate that any comprehensive effort to achieve material reduction in false alarms (most authorities admit the Utopia of “no false calls” can never be realized), must be a continuing effort.

The objectives of the enterprise have been clearly defined, and the appropriate I.A.F.C. sub-committees formed, as has been explained. An important detail of this set-up which may escape the casual reader is the fact that represented on the groups are all the prominent organizations directly and closely concerned with fire prevention and protection in this country. This includes, in addition to the I.A.F.C., of course, the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the National Fire Protection Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters. It should be explained here that another important organization, the International Municipal Signal Association, is represented through the general chairman of the False Alarm Campaign, Chief Thomas O’Brien, who is an official in the I.M.S.A.

In addition, various other consulting and cooperating agencies will play a part in the continuing effort. These will include fire schools and colleges; manufacturers of fire service communications; police and sheriff’s organizations; municipal administrative groups, etc.

Aims and Objectives

The aims and objectives of the enterprise as set forth and approved by the I.A.F.C., are about as follows:

  1. To establish a proper definition of a “False Alarm” and the method of determining what constitutes a “False Alarm.” At present the term “False Alarm” covers everything front alarms transmitted with malicious intent to and including those labelled “unnecessary,” “needless,” “good intent,” “mistaken,” etc.

At present there is no standard definition or terminology nor is there any uniform classification of such alarms. Nor is there unanimity of opinion between fire chiefs, signalmen and others concerned with the problem of fire service communications responsible for classifying and tabulating such alarms. The first action in the Association’s drive, therefore, should be to study the nomenclature and the determination of an accepted definition, or definitions, not only of what costitutes a “Malicious False Alarm” but alarms in all essential categories—box, telephone, verbal, etc.

It is essential, said the Committee on Communications, that all parties and interests in, and allied with the fire service be in agreement on these definitions and nomenclature. If the drive accomplished no more than this single aim, the Committee believes the effort would be well worth while.

  1. Before any remedial measures to correct the false alarm evil can be prepared and adopted, it is also essential to clearly determine the underlying causes of false alarms; those elements, physical, mental, psychological or otherwise, which motivate persons responsible for false alarms. Naturally, particular attention should be given the type of alarms termed “malicious” and those who perpetrate them.

This will entail considerable research, which is one of the reasons for the Sub-Committee on Research and Analysis. Some of these essential data have already been secured. They throw considerable light on such questions as who turns in false alarms (the human element)?; when are false alarms sounded (the time element); where are they the most common (the geographical element); what impels the sender to transmit a false alarm (causes and reasons), etc.

Out of the mass of basic data assembled and analyzed by the several sub-committees — and the trial campaigns now under way—will come a final planned campaign which it is hoped will find its way into every political sub-division of the nation, just as has “Fire Prevention Week.”

New York Conducts “Pilot” Campaign

The City of New York did not wait for a national program to reduce the number of false alarms. It bad already determined certain fundamental facts on the subject and its Fire Commissioner, Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., instructed Chief O’Brien to go ahead along lines laid down by the Bureau of Fire Communications and other departmental interests who were “in” on the drive.

In passing, it might be recorded that in New York City there are between 10,000 and 15,000 false alarms turned in annually from all sources. In 1951 there were 36,000 box alarms turned in, of which 13,150 were false. The figures for 1953 showed the same trend. In what is known as the Twelfth Battalion District, there are about 100 a month.

The Fire Departments Bureau of Fire Communications produced figures to show that there is a definite pattern to these false alarms. Its researches showed that they occur mostly during the hours between noon and 1:00 P.M. and 3:00 P.M. and 10 P.M. The Department has long been of the opinion that many false alarms are turned in by children and youths of school age (a belief that has been definitely substantiated). “It may be more than a coincidence,” said the department, “that the incidence of false alarms is highest during the out-of-school hours of children.”

The departmental statisticians and researchers of the Bureau of Fire Communications came up with data to show what false alarms were costing the city heavily in man-hours of work lost; accidents (even death) to fire fighters; miles of unnecessary travel (with resultant added costs for fuel, lubrication, wear and tear on apparatus, etc.). Although accurate figures on the cost per false alarm could not be set down, the cost could definitely be related to accidents to men and equipment, in addition to operating expenses and wear and tear on equipment.

The pertinent data bearing upon the above were prepared by the Bureau with graphic charts showing the number of false alarms per each fire box; location; the time of day they originated; the relation of each box from which false alarms were received to proximity of public and parochial schools, and related data.

As a result of the information analyzed, it was believed that the initial start of any campaign to reduce the number of false alarms should begin with and be carried out through the schools. This entailed the cooperation of the Board of Education, which was gladly offered.

An Elementary School Committee on False Alarms was set up following a meeting on March 23, 1954, at the office of Assistant Superintendent of Schools Dr. Clare C. Baldwin. Present, in addition to representatives of the fire department, were officials from the Bureau of Curriculum Research, and 11 Principals of Schools in Districts 10 and 11.

Participants in the planning, once having studied the data submitted by the fire department, were quick to realize the moral, ethical and character building aspects of the problem, and were unanimous in feeling that the schools should effectuate a constructive approach curriculum-wise, in helping reduce the number of false alarms.

The Committee soon discovered that there was virtually no material available in the limited area of false alarms, and that it would be necessary to make original contributions. It was decided to include in the program material dealing with various areas of fire prevention.

The Committee, following its first meeting on April 9, 1954, prepared complete suggestions for school-wide and community programs under the aegis of school supervisors; resource units covering all grades, and suitable leads of integration with social studies. The program includes also original stories for Kindergarten classes; a bibliography of reading material available in the District Library, and at the Board of Education Library; a list of films on fire safety; a unit prepared for the Second Grade; suggestions for forums and fact sheets, etc.

The fire department and the committee concentrated their study on the Twelfth Battalion District which it was agreed would be the “pilot” district for the initial tryout of the vigorous educational campaign. Meanwhile, through the apoeals of Fire Commisioner Cavanagh, some city magistrates had upped the fines for sending false alarms, and the initial instances of conviction ran all the way up to one year in jail and fines of $1,000. While it was hoped this would have a salutary effect on adult false-alarm senders, fire fighters were not so sanguine about its effect on the small fry.

Aims and Objectives

The general aim of the campaign, as established by the Committee, was to instill in children an awareness of their responsibility as citizens in a community in regard to fire safety. Specifically, these were the objectives:

  1. To teach the importance of fire prevention in the home, school and community.
  2. To teach the purpose and use of a fire alarm box.
  3. To develop an understanding of the dangers of false fire alarms.
  4. To help reduce the incidence of false fire alarms.
  5. Through the children to educate parents.

The “Suitable Approaches” to the problem include

    1. What is the fire safety quotient of our home, our school and our community?
    2. What can we do to prevent fires?
    3. When should an alarm be turned in?
    4. How should an alarm be turned in?
    5. What fire fighting equipment does the fire department use?
Deputy Chief Thomas O'Brien and Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., kicking off faise alarm campaign.
  1. Who pays for the purchase and upkeep of this fire fighting equipment?
  2. What is a false alarm?
  3. Why are false alarms dangerous?
    1. The Little Boy Who Called Wolf. Aesop’s Fables—For all grades.
    2. Fireman. Eleanor Johnson — for grades 1-2-3.
    3. The Fireman. Paul Witty — for grades 1-2-3-4.
    4. Original stories by teachers — all grades.
    1. Display of pictures and fire-prevention posters.
    2. Films and film strips.
  3. TRIPS:
    1. Fire College, 48-34 35th Ave., L. I. City; Museum of Fire Dept.
    2. Museum of the City of New York. Early N. Y. C. fire apparatus, 103rd St. and 5th Ave.
    3. A local fire house.

In line with the foregoing, a list of some 35 suggested projects was prepared to cover the various curriculum areas and grade levels. Here the experience and facilities of the Board of Education were most helpful in cooperating with the fire department.

The Battalion District selected for the initial experiment is a busy one. It covers a broad area in Manhattan bounded by Fifth Ave. on the North; 96th St. on the West, and the Harlem and East Rivers on the East and South. The district is heavily populated and has some 32 public and parochial schools. The area has been the scene of many serious fires as well as having a high incidence of false alarms, with consequent loss of life and limb.

Some Details of the Program

After determining the ‘pilot’ area and plotting the curriculum and agenda, appeals were sent to all school principals and teachers urging cooperation with the fire department in the “long range program.” In this appeal, over the signature of the Assistant Superintendent of Schools, John B. King, it was pointed out that the attack on the problem is considered a vital and worthwhile curriculum experiment.

A complete presentation of “Curriculum Suggestions” was prepared and distributed under the direction of Dr. Clare C. Baldwin, Assistant Superintendent of Schools. Also, a “Teaching Guide for District Project on Fire Safety in District 26” was prepared by Mr. King and distributed later. Another high point of the campaign was a colorful and dramatic folder or brochure, which was distributed to students and their parents. This printed piece was captioned “Firemen Work to Protect Your Life and HomeYou Can Help! Never Send in a False Alarm.” Its six pages pictured youngsters turning in a false alarm; the smashup of apparatus responding to the false call: a fireman lecturing the children, and concluded with a few pertinent facts about fires in the nation and the City.

One thing the committee of teachers and supervisors in the District emphasized was the need for a positive approach throughout its consideration of the program. Educators were emphatic in this detail — a point often overlooked by the fire service in attempting to educate and train children. Said Mr. King: “Experiments in other large cities . . . have shown that the use of a negative approach. with its emphasis on ‘Don’ ts’ resulted in a marked increase in false fire alarms. Any program, characterized by a concentrated effort for a short period, has had the same negative effects.”

The Teaching Guide, which is being sent out to educators and supervisors about this time, says this: “. . . In at least three other areas in New York City where a positive approach has been used experimentally, results have been most encouraging. In one area, false fire alarms were reduced from 110 per month to 6.” And it added: “Such an approach involves the inculcation of favorable attitudes and appreciations through many meaningful experiences in all the curriculum areas over a long period. As opportunities occur as part of the regular instructional program, teachers will plan to include the learning experiences necessary to develop desirable concepts related to the firemen, fire safety, community life and social responsibility.

According to the plan, the schools were appraised each month of the number and location of false alarms so that they could evaluate the effectiveness of their program. This also brought about a desirable rivalry of competition between schools to reduce the number of false fire alarms.

Personnel of the fire department augmented the program by visiting the school personnel, and this cooperation resulted in classes being taken to visit the fire stations and fire alarm boxes. In short, the personal contact—always cooperative—was maintained throughout the effort. The printed folder, previously mentioned, tied in well with these personal visits.

Supplementing the personal contact also, was the display of graphic and other material recording the month-bymonth progress of the drive. In this connection, it must be realized that school officials as well as students require personal contact with Fire Forces and must have their “mental batteries re-charged.” Incidentally, and deservedly so, they appreciate acknowledgement of work well done.

These are merely some of the highlights of the program. How has it gone? We have already given some indication. Other data supplied by the Bureau of Fire Communications make interesting reading. Here is a comparison of figures for the past three (3) years (dated August 5, 1955) by the Department’s Analytical Unit to Chief O’Brien:

This indicates a reduction of 1719 (22%) False Alarms in comparison with 1954 and a reduction of 2747 (30%) when compared with 1953. “Since February 1954, our records,” said the report, “indicate a decrease every month. This consistent decrease is being maintained because of the splendid cooperation of the Board of Education, the Courts and the Police Department.”

An impressive result of the effort, according to fire department officials, has been the change in the picture of the fire department and false alarms conjured up by the students in the areas of the trial effort. Formerly it was quite evident that the average school boy or girl had no conception of the seriousnes of a false alarm or of the far-reaching effects of such a call upon the fire fighters. If the campaign did little more than accomplishing this changed viewpoint, officials believe it will have been well worth while.

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