Questions & Answers - Privately Monitored Commercial

Q1.  Why may the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service charge for attending privately monitored unwanted fire alarm activations?

MFS has decided that charging for attendance at unwanted alarms may be applicable 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.
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Q2.  When is it likely the MFS will begin charging for attendance to avoidable privately monitored fire alarms?

The MFS plans to charge for avoidable false alarms to privately monitored fire alarms from 1/01/2008.

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Q3.  What is a chargeable alarm?

A chargeable false alarm is a false alarm or unwanted alarm from a fire alarm system where the cause of the false 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.

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

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Q4.  Under what circumstances does MFS charge for attending Unwanted Fire Activations (UFA) caused by cooking fumes, burnt toast, workmen activating a fire alarm, and other unwanted activations?

No charge is made for attendance at fires within the MFS gazzetted 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). A charge may be generated as a result of eg 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.

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Q5.  Why is a fire alarm system installed in a building?

  1. Give early warning of fire to the occupants;
  2. To allow safe and early evacuation from the building;
  3. To protect occupants from smoke inhalation or fire;
  4. To provide MFS with early notification of a fire in a building;
  5. To reduce loss of life;
  6. To allow early MFS response to a fire in a building;
  7. To reduce property damage;
  8. To reduce the amount of business lost;
  9. Minimise risk to the public who attend unfamiliar properties;
  10. As a duty of care in the interest of the public;
  11. To reduce damage to the environment.

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Q6.  How should owner/occupiers manage contractors working on premises fitted with a privately monitored fire alarm system?

When a workman is engaged to perform work in a building fitted with an automatic fire alarm system, it is recommended that the complex manager instigate precautions that ensure no unwanted alarms occur as a result of the workman's activities. The responsibilities of the contractor are established, as are the consequences of causing an unwanted alarm. The manager should establish the expectation upon the contractor to meet any consequential MFS charges invoiced to the property, if that is the policy of the business. MFS does not issue chargeable alarm invoices to the contractor.

The fire alarm area(s) in which work is being undertaken should be isolated while work is being undertaken. It is important that all workers are instructed about the consequences of working with fire alarm systems. Contractors should be met and provided with a briefing.

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Q7.  Does a building receive any free unwanted fire alarm attendances?

In some circumstances the MFS currently allows monitored 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 will be chargeable. Attendance by MFS at the second and any subsequent chargeable alarm at any premises within any 60 day period constitutes attendance to 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 are invoiced.

Consideration is given for incorrect testing by building owners/occupiers. A charge occurs if there is more than one unwanted alarm in a 60 day period. For further detail about alarm codes and charging, refer to "SAMFS Codes for Alarm Charging" and "Avoidable and Unavoidable Alarms".

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Q8.  What is the purpose of a free unwanted alarm in a 60-day period?

The purpose of a free 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 false alarm attendances.

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Q9.  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. The building evacuation plan procedures are to be adopted by managers, staff, and occupants in the event of an emergency.

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Q10.  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 monitored automatic fire alarms. The electronic query lists the calls in order showing the reason for the alarm activation.

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Q11.  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. It is often being regarded as just another unwanted alarm. 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 MFS is to educate all sections of the community in best practice safety procedures.

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Q12  What are non-chargeable fire alarm system activations?

A non chargeable false alarm is a false alarm or unwanted alarm from a fire alarm system where the cause of the false 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.

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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 like occurrences.

Correctly operating fire alarm systems are an intrinsic part of preventing unnecessary losses 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.

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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.

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Q15.  Why may the MFS forward an account for attending privately monitored 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 (ie for a technical reason, and in the absence of clear evidence of a fire triggering the alarm), it is evident that the some part of the automatic fire alarm system is not functioning correctly.

A fire alarm system that is not operating correctly is the responsibility of the owner/occupier to manage. Therefore, where the reason for the false 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 automatic fire alarm system that is creating numerous unwanted alarms?

The building owner/occupier should contact the body corporate, senior management, automatic fire alarm technician, consulting engineer, and/or certifier, requesting an options paper report of the choices about how to improve the performance of the fire alarm system.

Maintenance is always the obvious area that can be addressed. A comprehensive maintenance program involves every part of the fire alarm system's operating equipment and interacting environmental factors that affect that equipment. It starts with extensive discussions with the engineer/architect and fire alarm specialists to agree that the installed prescribed fire alarm system is of an adequate design standard in consideration of the total environment impacting factors.

It is essential that a fully programmed building specific maintenance plan be documented. This involves business decisions to ensure the practical viability of the proposal. In some cases, the evaluation may identify that a total upgrade to a much more effective system is warranted.

Often detectors are not replaced or tested regularly enough, in a planned way, and this may result in a manager not knowing which detectors have been replaced in the last couple of years. This is often very ineffective, particularly if the replacement plan has not included an upgrade to higher quality detectors.

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

MFS staff often report that a faulty detector was attributed to the cause of the unwanted alarm. Careful consideration of the particular type of detectors being located in particular locations does greatly assist in reducing UFAs. In many cases, this scenario could have avoided an unwanted alarm from occurring.

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

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Q17.  Has there been any demonstrated improvement in fire alarm system performance from buildings that have upgraded their fire alarm system; ie 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. MFS has numerous examples of significant improvements in automatic fire alarm performance where owner/occupiers have acted upon advice.

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Q18.  Can a building owner/occupier alter or change any prescribed fire alarm system equipment?

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 upgrades of the fire alarm system is recommended. MFS operational fire crews are generally not equipped to provide off-the-cuff advice in respect to fire alarm system changes. Advice from your security services provider should be sought to address any changes.

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

The people who may need to know about any changes to a prescribed fire alarm system include: Local Authority; Building Certifier; Bodies Corporate; owner/occupiers; building managers, staff; fire alarm technicians; MFS; respective insurance companies and various tenants and occupants.

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

No, many fire alarm systems installed within buildings are local systems only and do not require monitoring. Section E of the Building Code of Australia lists buildings requiring monitoring. Special circumstances may apply to certain buildings.

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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 Private Fire Alarm False Alarm Form from this site and request that the account is waived. The writer must outline the reasons why the MFS account should be cancelled. The Community Safety officer will consider the request and if satisfied that the reasons of the request are valid and waive the account.

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Q22.  Can the monitoring company or owner/occupier of a privately monitored fire alarm system telephone MFS and tell them not to send the fire appliance because it's an unwanted alarm?

MFS staff appreciate a telephone call to the MFS communication centre with advice about the status of events associated with the fire alarm activation. MFS communications centre then can 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 owner/occupier.

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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 false alarms.

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Q24.  Why do I pay for chargeable alarms when I already pay my Emergency Services Levy?

All property owners within South Australia contribute funds via the Emergency Services Levy (ESL). The purpose of the ELS 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 - ie if a particular type of property (due to its particular risk factors) were to become involved in a 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 levied upon individual properties is based on size 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.

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

The MFS Officer in charge of the attending operational fire-fighting 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 effected. The MFS Officer will progressively investigate the matter and seek evidence of the cause of the call-out.

The main aim of fire fighting crews responding is to establish the nature of the emergency and, if there is an emergency to save life and property.

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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 MFS Officer will also complete the record of attendance in the fire alarm panel.

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.

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Q27.  Who should a building owner/occupier consult about improving the performance of a fire alarm system?

The first point of contact would be the fire alarm technician who regularly provides fire alarm system maintenance. Industry publications can indicate other suppliers who can provide advice.

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Q28.  Who can approve the changes made to a fire alarm system?

There are a range of people who may need to be advised about or approve changes to your fire alarm systems. Your alarms maintenance contractor will be able to outline the process to you.

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Q29.  Isn't a smoke detector that operates as a result of sensing burnt toast just doing it's 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'.

However Australian Standards/ The Building Code of Australia require buildings must be designed with systems installed that are "fit for the purpose" of that building. This means that you should be able to cook toast without activation of the fire alarm system.

  1. The reason for installing an automatic fire alarm system is:
  2. To provide early warning of fire to the occupants;
  3. To allow safe and early evacuation of the building;
  4. To protect occupants from illness or injury;
  5. To provide MFS with early notification of a fire in a building;
  6. To reduce loss of life;
  7. To allow early MFS response to a fire in a building;
  8. To reduce the amount of business lost;
  9. To reduce building damage.

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Q30.  What information do I need to supply in my "Application to Waive Automatic fire Alarm False alarm Charge"?

If you believe that you have been charged for a false alarm that is unfair or beyond your control, you can apply to the MFS for consideration of a waiver of the false alarm charge.

To do this you must:-

  • Application to waive must be lodged within 30 days of invoice date.
  • Download and complete the Application to Waive Automatic Fire Alarm False Alarm Charge form from the MFS website.
  • The "Explanation For Request To Waive Private Fire Alarm False Alarm Charge" should detail the justification for the waiving and what has been done to ensure that false alarms will not re-occur. Use an additional sheet if required.
  • Attach a copy of the MFS invoice/s and evidence of the actions taken to remedy further false alarms. (eg Invoice from alarm maintenance company)
  • Forward all documentation to the MFS address that appears at the top of the waiver form.
  • The Application will be assessed and you will be contacted with the MFS decision in writing.

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Q31.  What are the fees for fire service attendance to for a false alarm/ unwanted alarm?

The schedule of fees is available in the SA Government Gazette. Please see Schedule 17 in the regulations for the MFS cost detail.  Click here to download the fees for 2013-14.

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