Unwanted False Alarms - Privately Monitored Domestic

The Unwanted Alarms measures are designed to encourage householders to address monitored domestic fire alarm management responsibilities. About one-third of all South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) turnouts are to Unwanted Alarms.

The safety issues surrounding unwanted alarms include:

  • People who hear regular unwanted alarms in their building may become complacent to the sound of the alarm. This can be dangerous when a fire does occur.
  • Unwanted alarms call in resources (an average of two MFS units attend each alarm), which are then unavailable for a genuine emergency or could be better deployed in other situations such as fire safety prevention activities, training, etc.
  • While all safety precautions are taken, a MFS appliance responding to any incident places a higher-than-normal level of danger and distraction to members of the public, MFS personnel and other drivers.
  • By reducing the number of non-emergency turnouts we will be creating a safer environment for everyone.

This information refers to the management of unwanted alarms in domestic dwellings, so that it may lead to reduced numbers of unwanted alarms. The information provided assists owner/ occupiers to understand the requirements relating to the installation and maintenance of alarm systems. It also provides reasons why unwanted alarms should be avoided and strategies to reduce their occurrence. 

For more information contact the Community Safety Department or to arrange an appointment with MFS personnel regarding unwanted alarms contact 8204 3611 or country callers within South Australia 1300 737 637.

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What is an Unwanted Alarm?

An unwanted privately monitored domestic alarm is the activation of a fire detection component of the buildings security system. Upon investigation by the MFS it is deemed the situation would not have resulted in any danger to the occupants and premises from fire or other emergency and could have been avoided had the owner/occupier taken appropriate precautions.

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Why reduce Unwanted Alarm activations?

The MFS responds to large number of monitored domestic fire alarm system activations with most of these classified as unwanted alarms. These unwanted alarm activations can have a negative effect on the community and the fire service, and this includes:

  • Reduced community confidence in the value and reliability of monitored domestic fire alarm systems.
  • Complacency to monitored domestic fire alarm warning tones – ‘it's just another false alarm!’.
  • Unnecessary risk to fire-fighters and the community due to increased numbers of responses under "lights and sirens".
  • The need for better use of resources.

Clearly a situation where people choose to ignore a domestic fire alarm due to the feeling it’s 'just another false alarm' is unacceptable, because it may be placing lives at risk.

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The importance of Privately Monitored Domestic Fire Alarms

  • Alarm systems are primarily designed to warn occupants of a fire so that they may safely evacuate the premises.
  • Correctly maintained and operating alarm systems are effective and proven life saving devices.
  • Failure to take advantage of this early warning, due to poor performance of a monitored domestic fire alarm system, has cost people their lives.
  • Domestic fire alarm systems are important in providing occupants with prompt warning if a fire occurs.
  • Systems that are not properly installed or maintained may cause unwanted alarm activations. This has a negative effect on occupants' responses to genuine alarms and as a result downgrades their effectiveness.
  • The MFS is concerned about the level of complacency within the community when a monitored domestic fire alarm operates.
  • It is important therefore that unwanted alarm calls to the fire service are reduced, and as such, the MFS has initiated a campaign to reduce unwanted alarm activations.
  • You need to carefully consider the benefits that you can achieve by reducing the number of unwanted alarm activations generated at your premises.

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What can be done?

The MFS and other fire authorities around the world have developed ways of reducing unwanted alarm activations. These include:

  • Amendments to legislation to raise the standard of monitored domestic fire alarm systems and their maintenance.
  • Developing partnerships with all the key stakeholders - the MFS, building owner/occupiers and the fire protection and monitoring industry.
  • Community education programs and information to assist in reducing unwanted alarms, and.
  • Charging for attendance to unwanted monitored alarm activations.

Owner / occupiers of privately monitored buildings can help to reduce unwanted alarm activations by:

  • Ensuring that monitored domestic fire alarm systems are operating correctly.
  • Ensure that anyone entering the premises understands that you have a monitored smoke alarm system and the precautions they can take to avoid activation.
  • Understanding how a monitored domestic fire alarm system can be upgraded to perform to expectations.
  • Having building owner/occupiers of privately monitored domestic fire alarm systems seek advice from their alarms contractor or the MFS to reduce unwanted alarms.

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Possible solutions

If the alarm activation was unwanted, seek information on ways to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of it occurring again.

Addressing one or more of the following can reduce unwanted alarms:

  • modifying occupant behaviour
  • managing system faults and alarm maintenance
  • building design issues (improve ventilation/ exhaust extraction)
  • managing building maintenance works - information for dealing with workmen/contractors
  • modifying the monitored domestic fire alarm system.

When organising meetings to discuss the problems and possible solutions the following people should be involved:

  • your fire / security alarm contractor/maintenance company
  • MFS Community Safety Department staff/False Alarms Officer
  • owner / occupier.

It is important to emphasise the need to clearly identify the real cause(s) before initiating any remedial action.

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Modifying occupant behaviour

Unwanted alarm activations can occur for a variety of reasons due to everyday occupant activities. These may be caused by:

  • poor alarm system maintenance
  • fumes and vapours from cooking
  • smoke from toasters, ovens and stoves
  • steam from showers, hot water systems and kettles - particularly in building layouts where there is poor ventilation
  • cigarettes, lighters, matches, candles or incense
  • aerosol hair spray or insect spray.

It is important to identify what the real causes of the alarm activating before adopting any ‘quick fix’ solution.

Below are some questions to ask before adopting any solution or strategy:

  • Is the air extraction appropriate for the cooking facilities?
  • Is the air current or ventilation direction managed?
  • Does the ventilation system draw smoke from the toaster past the smoke detector?
  • Does the range hood discharge to open air?
  • Is there adequate make-up air supply?
  • What happens to airflow with the opening of a window or a door?
  • Do the air conditioning and/or kitchen exhaust discharge directly on to detectors?
  • Are smoke detectors too close to bathroom, steam or kitchen outlets?
  • Will fitting self-closing door mechanisms on bathroom doors help?

Solutions include:

  • Taking care when deodorising rooms and using insect aerosol sprays.
  • Relocating mirrors from areas beneath detectors to reduce activations due to hair sprays and dryers.
  • Using the toaster close to the exhaust hood to remove any smoke.
  • Turn the toaster control knob down and fix into position.
  • Ensure kitchen exhaust is working efficiently (cleaned and adequate capacity to remove all cooking smoke).
  • Controlling use of candles, incense and tobacco near smoke detectors.

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Managing system faults and alarm maintenance

  • Ensure that the fire alarm system is maintained to manufacturers specifications to reduce the chance of unwanted alarms.
  • Replace faulty alarms as soon as the fault is detected.
  • Maintenance should include checking backup battery, testing monthly, cleaning smoke detectors at least six monthly. For more informaiton see Domestic Smoke Alarms.
  • The MFS recommends replacement of smoke alarms/ detectors every 10 years.
  • The MFS recommends using Photo-Electric smoke alarms/ detectors.

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Building design issues

  • Building additions or alterations could cause unwanted alarms if the alarm system is not changed to suit the new layout.
  • Ensure that a smoke alarm is not directly outside a steamy bathroom.
  • Alarm placement in dusty and windy areas should be avoided.

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Managing building maintenance works - dealing with workmen/contractors

  • All workers entering the property should be informed that there is a monitored alarm present and care should be taken to avoid an unwanted alarm.
  • If work cannot be done without setting off the alarms then the fire alarm should be isolated and a responsible person should maintain a fire watch.
  • As soon as work has been completed for the day the alarm system should be reinstated.
  • For information on how to isolate your fire alarm circuit refer to your alarm panel user manual or contact your monitoring company.

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Modifying the Monitored Fire Alarm System

  • Do not modify your monitored fire alarm system without informing your monitoring company.
  • Ensure the alarms are in the correct position - refer to Domestic Smoke Alarms.
  • Changing the type of detector could resolve some problems (photo electric for ionisation).

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