Helicopters Join Battle Against False Alarms
False alarms have become a serious problem for fire departments across the nation. In the last few years, statistics show they have increased at a staggering pace.
The Chicago Fire Department reported a total of 90,000 fire responses last year. Of these, 40,000 were false. Detroit reported that one out of every three fire alarms proved to be false, and New York City had over 65,000 false alarms last year. The Los Angeles City Fire Department reported a 30 percent increase in false alarms last year over the previous year. In Los Angeles City alone, over 200,000 firemen and 60,000 pieces of equipment moved through the streets needlessly over the 12-month period.
The great majority of false alarms are reported through street boxes. Statistics show that the majority of the false alarms are made by youths between eight and 18 years old. Malicious mischief appears to be their greatest motivation. Areas near schools have the highest number of false alarms.
Slight weekend peak
According to an extensive threeyear study by the LACFD, the number of false alarms is consistent through the week, “with slight peaks on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The high rate of incidence occurs between noon and 10 p.m., with the highest peak from 3 to 9 p.m.” This report also stated, “The majority of the false alarms occurred where street fire alarm boxes were present, in the areas of lower home values and in areas of lower family income.”
Fire departments are trying various methods to reduce false alarms. Chief John T. O’Hagen of New York stated that his department is replacing 2,000 pull-type alarm boxes with a direct voice contact type. A direct telephone box system, similar to the type New York is installing, was tested in Los Angeles. There was a marked reduction in false alarms just after this voice system was installed, but after a few months, the percentage jumped back to equal that of the pull-type box.
Curtis W. Volkamer, chief fire marshal of the Chicago Fire Department, reported that a telephone box system installed in the southwest side of that city had a higher rate of false alarms than the usual pull-type system. He also stated that his department, in an effort to reduce false alarms, is recommending that fire alarm boxes in schools be moved from hallways to classrooms.
Fire officials across the country are questioning the need for street boxes. Statistics show that very few real emergencies are reported via street boxes. Telephones appear to be adequate for reporting emergencies throughout most of the nation. For example, over one half of the total area of Los Angeles has never had fire alarm boxes, and the fire protection of that area is comparable to the rest of the city. False alarms in that area are comparatively nonexistent. Box alarm systems could conceivably have some value in commercial areas where telephones are inaccessible after working hours. Statistics show that the small percentage of fires reported by street boxes is also reported by telephone.
Street boxes removed
In Detroit, 132 street boxes were removed upon Chief Charles J. Quinlan’s recommendation and approval of the board of fire commissioners. These boxes had the highest false alarm incidence in the city. A similar recommendation has been made by the board of fire commissioners in Los Angeles.
Removal of an entire system of street boxes would be contrary to the standards specified by the American Insurance Association. The result of an AIA municipal survey is reflected in fire insurance rates. Los Angeles is the only large city (over 500,000) to have a fire department rated as Class 1 by the AIA.
Locking alarm boxes is a simple operation, but it could cause delay in an emergency if the citizens were unaware of this practice.
The Chicago Fire Department states, “We have locked some fire alarm boxes located adjacent to schools, where there is an interconnection between the inside school alarm system and street box. This has reduced substantially the false alarms in these areas.”
Many cities have increased the penalty for a false alarm. In Los Angeles, the maximum penalty is a $1,000 fine and/or one year in jail. This, too, has proven to be unsuccessful because most offenders are juveniles who either are unaware of the penalty or just disregard it. If a fireman or civilian is injured in connection with a false alarm, the charge is increased to a felony. If a life is lost, the charge can be manslaughter.
One of the most successful deterrents to false alarms is a siren or other type of sounding device on a box. When the box is tripped, the sounding device attracts the attention of bystanders to the one activating the alarm. Invisible marking powder has been tried on alarms near schools and playgrounds. Another device actually handcuffed the person to the alarm box as he activated the alarm. It was quickly abandoned, however, because one citizen was robbed by a thief who had prompted him to trip the alarm. Cameras installed on specific fire alarms boxes also were considered, but their cost and maintenance was considered to be prohibitive.
Each of these systems has merit, but they all reflect an approach to the false alarm problem that involves legal action. It is neither the intent nor the desire of fire officials to prosecute, for example, a 10-year-old boy who is unaware of the seriousness of his actions.
Several cities dispatch a single engine instead of an entire box assignment. This is done at certain hours of the day only with boxes which have an extremely bad false alarm record. The theory is to minimize the amount of equipment responding to false alarms and keep it available for real emergencies.
Chief Raymond Hill of the Los Angeles City Fire Department has a working arrangement with the Los Angeles Police Department. The police are notified of each box alarm, and a patrol car in the area is requested to make an nonemergency response to the box. This has resulted in a few arrests, but in many cases the police are unavailable for response.
The Los Angeles City Fire Department is involved in a massive educational program depicting the dangers of false alarms. The purpose is to appeal to parents and responsible adults to warn young people of the hazards of false alarms. A second phase of this program is an extensive school visitation plan by fire department members dangerous practice of summoning emergency help needlessly. The results of the campaign are not yet compiled.
Helicopters are now being used for surveillance in Los Angeles in still another effort to reduce false alarms. One of the fire department helicopters is dispatched daily from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. to patrol areas where the incidence of false alarms is greatest. The firemen in the helicopter are in radio contact with the dispatching center and the men on the fire apparatus. The helicopter can quickly respond to a box alarm and determine if it is false.
The board of education has notified school officials in the areas concerned that helicopters are being used for surveillance. Teachers have been instructed to pass this information on to the students. This operation has been in effect for a very short time, and the results are still being studied.