Unwanted False Alarms - Privately Monitored Commercial

The Unwanted False Alarms (UFA) measures are designed to encourage building owners to address fire alarm management responsibilities. Approximately 1,750 turnouts per year by the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) are to UFAs via privately monitored alarms. Of these very few were actual fires and most were the fault of the owner/occupier. The safety issues surrounding UFAs include:

  • People who hear regular UFAs in their building may become complacent to the sound of the alarm. This can be dangerous when a fire does occur.
  • UFAs call in resources (an average of two MFS units attend each UFA) which are then unavailable for a genuine emergency or could be better deployed in other situations such as fire safety activities.
  • While all safety precautions are taken, a MFS appliance rushing 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 emergency turn-outs we will be creating a safer environment for everyone. All responses are considered fires until confirmed otherwise.

This information refers to the management of Unwanted False Alarms, to reduce the numbers of unwanted alarms. The information provided assists owner/ occupiers to understand the requirements relating to the installation and maintenance of fire alarm systems. It also provides reasons why false or 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 UFAs contact 8204 3611 or country callers within South Australia call 1300 737 637.

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What are Unwanted Alarm Activations?

Unwanted alarm activations are the activation of a fire system, where after investigation by MFS it is deemed the situation would not have resulted in any danger to the occupants and premises from fire.

Facts

The MFS responds to approximately 1,700 privately monitored fire alarm activations per year. Only a very small percentage of these activations were due to fire.

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Why reduce unwanted alarm activations?

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

  • Disruption to normal business activities through evacuation of buildings, interruption of work and the cost of lost production.
  • The erosion of user and community confidence in the value and reliability of monitored fire alarms.
  • Complacency to fire alarm warning tones - "it's just another false alarm!".
  • Unnecessary risk to firefighters and the community due to increased numbers of responses under "lights and sirens".
  • Inability to use MFS resources more effectively.

Clearly, a situation where people choose to ignore an activated fire alarm due to the attitude its 'just another false alarm' is unacceptable. It may be placing lives at risk.

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The Importance of Fire Alarms

  • Fire alarm systems and monitoring of these systems are required in certain types of buildings under legislation and for occupant and property protection.
  • Fire alarm systems are primarily designed to warn occupants of a fire so that they may safely evacuate the premises.
  • Correctly maintained and operating fire alarm systems are effective and proven life saving devices.
  • Failure to take advantage of this early warning of a monitored fire alarm has cost people their lives.
  • Monitored fire alarms are important in providing occupants of buildings prompt warning if a fire occurs and to initiate a fire service response.
  • Fire alarm 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 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 fire alarm activations generated at your premises.

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What can be done?

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

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

Owner / occupiers of buildings where fire alarm systems are installed can help to reduce unwanted alarm activations by:

  • Ensuring that monitored fire alarms are operating correctly.
  • Providing information to staff, tenants, clients, tradespersons and the general public on how to effectively live and work with installed monitored fire alarms.
  • Involving all stakeholders in how their monitored fire alarm can be upgraded to perform to expectations.
  • Having building owner/occupiers of monitored fire alarms invite their security services contractor's assistance about optimising their monitored fire alarms for their building.
  • Developing cooperation between everyone who lives and works with fire detection and monitored fire alarms.

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Possible Solutions

If the fire 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 fire alarms:

  • Modifying occupant behaviour.
  • Managing system faults and fire alarm system maintenance.
  • Building design issues.
  • Managing building maintenance works - information for dealing with workmen/contractors.
  • Modifying the monitored fire alarm (after consultation).

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

  • Your security services contractor.
  • A representative of the building owner.
  • The building manager.
  • MFS Community Safety Department staff / False Alarms Officer.

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

  • 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.
  • Activities by cleaners and tradespersons.
  • Building fumigation.

Whereas the most modern monitored fire alarms have the 'intelligence' to determine the difference between smoke from a toaster and a fire, older systems do not. It is important to identify what the REAL causes of the fire alarm activating before adopting any "quick fix" solution. 

Questions to ask before adopting any solution or strategy include:

  • Is there adequate air extraction and ventilation?
  • Is the air current or ventilation direction managed?
  • Does the ventilation system draw smoke from the toaster past the smoke detector?
  • Does the exhaust fan 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 the door heads in the bathroom too small?
  • Are smoke detectors too close to bathroom or steam outlets?
  • Are stove and toast utilities in the correct location?
  • Could relocating the kettle to a position further from the detector help?
  • Would fitting self-closing door mechanisms on bathroom doors help?

Possible solutions include:

  • Reviewing work practices such as the deodorising of rooms and the control of insects by aerosol sprays.
  • Relocating mirrors from areas beneath detectors to reduce activations due to hair sprays and dryers.
  • Ensuring proper multi-language signage is located throughout the premises warning occupants that sensitive fire detection equipment has been installed for their safety, and that these systems can be inadvertently activated by contaminants such as smoking, steam, cooking, etc.
  • Hardwiring toasters so that they cannot operate outside the scope of the kitchen exhaust hood (switching the toaster on also turns on the exhaust hood).
  • Turn the toaster control knob down and fix into position.
  • Removing cooking facilities.
  • Installing a bulkhead between the kitchen and the location of the detectors (distance between a detector and a bulkhead must be in accordance with Australian Standards). Note: Ventilation control is preferred to the provision of bulkheads since bulkheads may also delay the detection of a real fire.

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