Questions & Answers - Privately Monitored Domestic

Q1.  Why does the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) charge for attending unwanted alarm activations?

MFS commenced charging for attendance at unwanted alarms due to the increasing number of times MFS attended buildings where it was clear that fire alarm systems were either not performing to Australian Standards, or not being maintained to a performance standard that prevented unnecessary fire alarm system activations.

Q2.  What is a chargeable alarm?

chargeable unwanted alarm is an unwanted alarm from a fire alarm system where the cause of the unwanted alarm was due to an activity of an occupant or inaction of an owner and where the activation of the alarm could have been prevented.

non-chargeable unwanted alarm is an unwanted alarm from a fire alarm system where the cause of the unwanted alarm is considered to be beyond the control of the owner/occupant and was unforeseen or unpredictable and where no activity of an occupant can be blamed for the alarms activation. This includes storms or other acts of nature or occurrences that the owner cannot control.

Q3.  Under what circumstances does the MFS charge for attending unwanted alarms caused by; e.g. cooking fumes, burnt toast, workman activating a fire alarm, and other unwanted activations?

No charge is made for attendance at fires within the MFS gazetted boundaries. A charge may be generated following analysis of the reason for the fire alarm activation in light of the definition of a chargeable alarm (refer to Question 2). E.g. A charge may be generated as a result of cooking fumes activating a smoke detector due to people not adequately supervising the cooking activity. This is a matter that can be managed by the occupant or building design features that can be utilised to control cooking fumes.

If the actual cooking appliance is on fire and has caused a fire, no charge will be made. However, the fault in the appliance will need to be reported by the attending fire officer, and the appliance manufacturer advised. There will be an investigation of any potential fire risks associated with that device. If necessary a public warning may be issued.

Q4.  Why is a monitored fire alarm system installed in a building?

Fire alarm systems are installed to:

  • give early warning of fire to the occupants
  • allow safe and early evacuation from the building
  • protect occupants from smoke inhalation or fire
  • provide MFS with early notification of a fire in a building via the monitoring company
  • reduce loss of life, and
  • reduce property damage.

Q5.  How should owner/occupiers manage contractors working on premises fitted with an automatic fire alarm system?

When a workman is engaged to perform work in a building fitted with a monitored fire alarm system, it is recommended that the owner/occupier instigate precautions that ensure no unwanted alarms occur as a result of the workman's activities. It is essential that the responsibilities of the contractor are established, as are the consequences of causing an unwanted alarm. The owner/occupier should establish the expectation upon the contractor to meet any MFS charges invoiced to the property.

MFS does not issue chargeable alarm invoices to the contractor.

The fire alarm zones in which work is being undertaken should be isolated while work is being undertaken. It is recommended that a person is tasked as a safety watch while the fire alarm zone is isolated. It is important that all workers are instructed about the consequences of working with fire alarm systems. Contractors should be provided with a briefing about the alarm system.

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Q6.  Does a building receive any free unwanted alarms?

The MFS currently allows monitored automatic fire alarms an initial free call to an unwanted alarm call. There is also a grace period in which time is available to rectify the problem. This length of time for rectification varies and depends on the day of the week (in relation to the original alarm activation). Should a second or subsequent unwanted alarm occur within 60 days the second and subsequent unwanted alarm activation may be chargeable. Attendance by MFS at the second and any subsequent chargeable alarm at any premises within any '60 day' period constitutes attendance at a 'Chargeable Alarm'.

The 60 day period is not based on 60 days from the first of the month. The start of the 60 days commences when a chargeable alarm occurs and an invoice is created when a second and subsequent chargeable alarm occurs within 60 days of the first chargeable alarm. Currently, the first chargeable alarm may be free and the second and subsequent chargeable alarms may be invoiced.

For further details about alarm codes and charging refer to ‘MFS Codes for Alarm Charging’ and ‘Avoidable and Unavoidable Alarms’.

Q7.  What is the purpose of a non-chargeable unwanted alarm in a 60 day period?

The purpose of a non-chargeable unwanted alarm is to recognise that sometimes accidents may happen, and to provide the owner/occupier with an opportunity to address the cause of the unwanted alarm to ensure that no further unwanted alarms occur in the future. The failure of owner/occupiers to improve poorly performing automatic fire alarm systems will cause MFS to move towards charging for all unwanted alarm attendances.

Q8.  What should an owner/occupier do when a fire alarm activates?

In the event of a fire alarm operating in a building, it is the responsibility of the owner/occupier to ensure that building evacuation plan procedures are implemented upon hearing the automatic fire alarm system operate. All occupants must be included in the Home Fire Escape Plan.

Q9.  How does MFS decide which alarm activation will be chargeable?

The attending fire officer investigates the cause of the fire alarm activation and notes this information in his fire report. A computerised query of the electronic fire report is compiled to identify all call-outs to privately monitored automatic fire alarms. The electronic query lists the calls in order showing the reason for the alarm activation.

Q10.  What is the purpose of reducing the number of unwanted alarms?

MFS is most concerned about the level of complacency occurring in the whole community when an automatic fire alarm operates. The fire alarm is an early warning device that is being ignored too often. This cultural view represents the potential for people, who choose not to egress the building when the alarm is raised, to become overcome by smoke and place their lives and the lives of others at risk. Too many people have died as a result of poorly performing fire safety systems. One of the responsibilities of the MFS is to educate all sections of the community in best practice safety procedures.

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Q11.  What are non-chargeable unwanted fire alarm system activations?

A non-chargeable unwanted alarm is an unwanted alarm from a fire alarm system where the cause of the unwanted alarm is considered to be beyond the control of the owner / occupant and was unforeseen or unpredictable and where no activity of an occupant can be blamed for the alarms activation. This includes storms or other acts of nature or occurrences that the owner cannot control.

Attendance to a fire alarm where a fire has occurred is a non-chargeable response.

Q12.  Why should owner/occupiers take responsibility to ensure that the fire alarm system operates correctly?

Minister's Specification SA 76, called up in SA Development Act 1993 specifies the requirements for maintenance of fire alarm systems.

Owner/Occupiers have formal and ethical responsibility to ensure the auto fire alarm system is compliant to required standards for the safety of all occupants and early detection to reduce fire damage to the property.

Q13.  Has a fire appliance rushing to an unwanted alarm ever been involved in an accident where a citizen has died or has been injured?

Unfortunately this has occurred. Fire appliances responding to emergency calls from automatic fire alarm system activation have been involved in motor vehicle accidents. This includes calls that subsequently proved to be unwanted alarms. MFS is very concerned at this unnecessary loss, and is committed to implementing strategies designed to eliminate future occurrences.

Correctly operating fire alarm systems are an intrinsic part of preventing unnecessary loss of life within the community. This includes responsibility for not only the events occurring in a particular building, but additionally, responsibility for relative duty of care associated with managing events generated as a result of the fire alarm activation.

Q14.  Why does MFS want to reduce the number of unwanted alarms?

MFS is committed to an objective of significantly reducing complacency among the community when a fire alarm operates. There is a greater risk to the community and firefighters by responding to unwanted alarms. Until determined otherwise the response is for a fire in the building (under lights and sirens).

The time consumed by MFS attending unwanted alarms can be better utilised undertaking tasks that are more important to achieving fire safety in the community.

Responding to a faulty fire alarm system because the fire alarm system was not performing appropriately is unacceptable when responsible parties could have managed the performance of the automatic fire alarm system.

Q15.  Why does the MFS forward an account for attending automatic fire alarm activations that upon investigation show no sign or reason for the activation?

A correctly operating fire alarm system is installed to provide early warning of a fire. In the event of a fire, generally tell-tale signs of the combustion process are evident in some form. The occurrence of an actual fire does not result in an invoice for a chargeable alarm being generated.

Where the fire alarm system has facilitated a fault that causes an alarm activation (i.e. for a technical reason, and in the absence of clear evidence of a fire triggering the alarm), it is evident that some part of the automatic fire alarm system is not functioning correctly.

A fire alarm panel that is not operating correctly is the responsibility of the owner/occupier to manage. Therefore, where the reason for the unwanted activation is an improperly operating fire alarm system, and there was no need for MFS to attend, an account may be generated.

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Q16.  What can be done to improve an existing privately monitored fire alarm system that is creating numerous unwanted alarms?

Maintenance is always the obvious area that can be addressed. A comprehensive maintenance program involves testing, cleaning, checking the backup battery and replacement of old smoke detectors.

  • Testing - as per manufacturer's specification, and in accordance with AS 1851
  • Cleaning - using brush on vacuum - at least six monthly
  • Checking battery - as per user manual - monthly
  • Replacement - as required, but within 10 years

The sensitivity of detectors alters over time and environmental exposure. The older the detector the greater the chance of a systems fault occurring.

Careful consideration of the particular type of detectors being located in particular locations does greatly assist in reducing unwanted alarms. The fire services of Australia recommend photo electric smoke alarms are used.

Maintenance on its own will not always be enough; some automatic fire alarm systems will need to be upgraded in order to adequately address unwanted alarm operation.

Q17.  Has there been any demonstrated improvement in fire alarm system performance from buildings that have upgraded their fire alarm system; i.e. the upgrade has produced nil or minimal chargeable alarms?

The answer is yes. However, any building owner/occupier who does not adopt a holistic approach or seriously commit to reducing unwanted alarms may not quite achieve the desired result. The MFS has numerous examples of significant improvements in automatic fire alarm performance where owner/occupiers have acted upon advice.

The MFS has identified a "Unwanted Alarms" Officer whose role is to assist in identifying the causes of unwanted alarms and to make recommendations to reduce their occurrence.

Q18.  Can a building owner/occupier alter or change their fire alarm system?

The MFS has continuously recommended that owner/occupiers review the operation of the fire alarm system to ensure optimum results. The review may identify that certain changes or upgrade of the fire alarm system is recommended. MFS operational fire crews may be able to provide some advice in respect to fire alarm system changes, but it is recommended to contact your alarms contractor or the MFS Unwanted Alarms Officer.

Changes to the layout and/or use of the dwelling could mean the alarm system needs to be reviewed.

Q19.  Who would need to know about any changes to a building fire alarm system?

The security system contractor should be consulted before any work is done on your fire alarm system.

The MFS Unwanted Alarms Officer may be consulted for advice if required.

Q20.  Do all building fire alarm systems need to be monitored?

No, most domestic fire alarm systems are not required to be monitored. As the fire alarm system is primarily a life saving system. The householder if home is just as able to call the fire service as the monitoring company. Monitoring is advantageous for bedridden people who are sometimes alone, and to detect fire when the contents of the property/assets merit immediate response by the MFS (antiques, paintings, etc.).

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Q21.  How does a building owner/occupier request that the MFS account for Unwanted Fire Alarms/charges be waived?

A building owner/occupier/manager may download the Application to Waive Privately Monitored Fire Alarm Charge Form from this site and request that the account is waived. The writer must outline the reasons why the MFS account should be waived. The Alarms Officer will consider the application and if satisfied that the reasons of the request are valid, will waive the account.

Q22.  As the owner/occupier of a fire alarm system can I telephone MFS and tell them not to send the fire appliance because it's an unwanted alarm?

No, however, MFS staff appreciates a telephone call from the building occupier to the MFS communication centre with advice about the status of events associated with the fire alarm activation. MFS communication centre can then forward this updated information to the responding fire crew while they are en route. Information about the status of the emergency at the subject building allows the officer to more efficiently manage the mobilisation of resources dependant upon the specifics of the information received.

Responding MFS crews are obligated to continue to the scene and investigate the reason for the alarm activation. This is due to the potential for maliciousness intended to delay MFS attendance, and the potential for incorrect assessment of the situation by the occupant.

Q23.  Does the MFS charge for chargeable fire alarms because it is seeking increased revenue?

No. The MFS attends more than 8,000 unwanted fire alarms throughout South Australia in a 12-month period. The MFS commenced charging for attendance at unwanted alarms due to the number of times MFS attended buildings where it was clear that fire alarm systems were not being maintained.

The MFS is providing information to assist owner/occupiers to reduce their potential chargeable alarm costs. It is safer and more cost effective for all parties that the MFS does not have to attend unwanted alarms.

Q24.  Why do I pay for chargeable alarms when I already pay a ESL?

All property owners within South Australia contribute funds via the Emergency Services Levy (ESL). The purpose of the ESL is to provide emergency services to the people of South Australia. The structured fees are based on a historically based expectation of the level of demand, i.e. if a particular type of property (due to its particular risk factors) were to become involved in fire, then that property would demand a level of MFS resources to be responded to that complex in order to manage the incident.

The dollar amount levied upon individual properties is based on size, use and type of property use. Clearly, where greater levels of risk demand greater levels of MFS resources, then a proportional ESL fee is set. These fee structures are provided in legislation.

The nominal fee for a chargeable unwanted alarm attendance is an incentive for the owner to reduce unwanted alarms and is not based on the actual cost of turnout, which would be substantially higher.

Q25.  What is a MFS officer looking to achieve while investigating a fire alarm activation?

The main aim of firefighting crews responding is to establish the nature of the emergency and, if there is an emergency to save life and property. The MFS Officer in charge of the attending operational firefighting crew is authorised to act on behalf of the MFS Chief Officer and ensure that the authority vested via the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 is achieved. The MFS Officer will progressively investigate the matter and seek evidence of the cause of the call-out.

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Q26.  Does the MFS provide any information about the cause of the fire alarm activation?

The MFS Officer will seek evidence of the cause of the automatic fire alarm activation. This investigation will involve attending the building fire alarm panel to confirm the location of the area, from which the call originated, and then inspect the actual location to confirm that people and property are safe. While at the point of origin of the call, the MFS Officer will seek evidence of the reason for the alarm activation. This investigation will be through observation of available evidence, and by interviewing people in attendance to determine the cause of the activation.

The MFS Officer will discuss with the building owner/occupier's on-site representative, the reason for the alarm activation.

The attending MFS Officer will advise MFS Communications Centre who complete an electronic report of the automatic fire alarm activation. This report refers to the available evidence that appears to be the cause of the activation.

Q27.  What is the responsibility of the owner/occupier when the fire alarm operates: (1) In relation to building occupants; & (2) the security/ fire alarm panel?

The responsibility of the owner/occupier is to ensure that pre-planned Home Fire Escape Plans are enacted. The prime function of a Home Fire Escape Plan is to ensure the safe evacuation of the people.

Once the Home Fire Escape Plan has been formulated it should be practiced by everyone in the dwelling at least once a year.

If the alarm panel of a fire system with multiple detectors indicates which detector/s has activated then the panel should not be reset before the arrival of the fire crews.

Q28.  Who should a building owner/occupier consult about improving the performance of a fire alarm system?

The first point of contact would be your security system contractor. They may have a maintenance section that could assist. Industry publications can indicate other suppliers who can provide advice.

Further advice may also be obtained from the MFS Community Safety Department.

Q29.  Can I make changes to the fire alarm system?

Changes should be made after consultation with your security system contractor. Advice may be obtained from MFS Community Safety Department.

Q30.  Isn't a smoke detector that operates as a result of sensing burnt toast just doing its job as designed?

The role of a smoke detector is certainly to recognise the incipient stages of a fire in order to give early warning of an emergency. In those terms, it is recognised that the smoke detector has 'done its job'. But you should be able to cook toast without activation of the fire alarm system. A well maintained and positioned smoke alarm is not likely to be activated by burnt toast.

The reasons for installing a monitored fire alarm system are to:

  • provide early warning of fire to the occupants
  • allow safe and early evacuation of the building
  • protect occupants from illness or injury
  • reduce loss of life
  • allow early MFS response to a fire in a building, and
  • reduce building damage.

Q31.  What are the fees for fire service attendance to a monitored domestic unwanted alarm?

The first unwanted alarm will be free. All subsequent unwanted alarms which occur within a 60 day period will be a fee off $50 each. The 60 day period starts from the first unwanted alarm and is not cumulative (see Q6).

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