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Triple sensing and multi-criteria detection technology boosts accurate detection of a real fire.

Fire or fake? Reducing the risk of false alarms

The minimisation of false and unwanted alarms is a key challenge that continues to plague the building and fire protection industry. Building managers have fire protection responsibilities not only towards their own employees, but also the lives and interests – commercial or otherwise – of the communities around them. It’s essential to avoid any unnecessary risk or disruption to either group.

Should an investment bank building be evacuated, for example, millions of pounds could be lost in a matter of minutes. If a hospital experiences a false alarm, highly sensitive decisions need to be made regarding people in intensive care. Even worse, should a large number of false alarms occur, it could result in the unfortunate consequence of those using the building becoming complacent to the sound of an alarm and failing to respond to the warning of a real fire. False alarms can also cause unneeded fire brigade callouts, which will only damage corporate reputations and relations with the local community, as well as putting victims of real fires at risk.

Evidently, any building or facility installed with a fire detection system must ensure the reduction of false or unwanted alarms is prioritised, and with the latest innovations in the fire protection industry, this is a closer reality than ever before. According to research firm Markets and Markets, the fire protection systems market is predicted to be worth $79.18bn by 2020, up from $33.58bn in 2013, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.53%. This growth is estimated to be fuelled by increasing worldwide health and safety legislation, and expansion in the Asia-Pacific market, clearly showing how this will be high on the agenda over the coming years.

Draining resources

One of the biggest issues with false alarms is that they are an incredible drain on public resources. To illustrate the issue, according to the Fire & Rescue New South Wales (FRNSW) department in Australia, fire brigades responded to approximately 48,000 automatic fire alarms (AFAs) in 2015 – with a shocking 97% of these alarms being non-genuine.

While the NSW Fire Brigades ACT 1989, Sect 42 already allows the FRNSW to charge for attending false alarm call-outs to monitored AFA systems, from 1 December 2016 the false alarm charge will increase to AUD $1,600 in order to motivate building owners and managers to be continually pro-active in managing and maintaining their fire alarm systems. The department has also found that properly maintained systems assist in reducing the number of false alarms attended, allowing them to respond more readily to genuine emergencies.

Indeed, repeat offences increase the risk that the response to a genuine incident will be delayed. Some site managers could be unaware that the local fire brigade might not respond to an alarm activated by an automatic fire detector due to their policy of not answering false alarms. Automatic alarms are hard to verify. As such, site management needs to ensure either that fire wardens are well-trained in correct reporting procedure, or that fire detection equipment is capable of discerning between, say, dust and smoke.

Embracing innovation

For organisations looking to improve safety and reduce false and unwanted alarms, it is clearly advisable to implement a well thought-out fire safety strategy that takes into account the necessary risk assessments across each of these possible triggers and situations. This is crucial in order to identify and wherever possible eliminate the potential scenarios in which false and unwanted alarms could occur.

If an existing system has been prone to false alarms, it is advisable to look at incorporating intelligent fire alarm detection devices. For instance, the use of interactively adjusted algorithms can establish if the detected properties of carbon monoxide, heat or smoke correspond to those held in memory for real fire events. By utilising this type of detection technology, steam from a shower will not trigger an alarm, for instance.

It can also be incredibly beneficial to have a wireless radio-enabled system in place to ensure that detectors across the site are integrated – such as with the latest CCTV technology – to aid the early detection and verification of fires. This can help to improve system functionality and performance and in the case of false alarms, CCTV cameras can help to aid the early detection and verification of fires by allowing users to view the area to gain a fuller picture of the situation – acting as a secondary investigation strategy.

Once a fire detection and alarm system is in place, although it might sound very basic, facilities teams must ensure that all staff tasked with using the fire controls (such as those who might be responsible for weekly sounder tests) are trained to do so. A mis-chosen fire extinguisher or ill-advised escape route could mean the difference between life and death. Also, if the system is linked to an alarm receiving centre (ARC), and is scheduled for testing, facilities managers should inform the ARC before and after the event.

Constant vigilance

With an appropriate fire detection and alarm system installed, there must be a programme of preventative maintenance in place. Site managers should ensure that their fire detection and alarm system is maintained by a competent servicing organisation.

The number of maintenance visits required is determined by the fire risk assessment and should take into account the level of risk (to life, property and construction continuity), complexity and size of the system.

However, buildings should ideally be visited for a maintenance check four times per annum. Twice per annum would be considered the absolute minimum and at each visit, the false alarm record should be checked. This will allow the servicing engineer to work with the facilities team to identify and any persistent causes of false alarms.

All buildings must be protected by a well-designed, properly installed and regularly maintained fire detection and alarm system. Throughout this process, reducing false and unwanted alarms has to be high on the agenda as not only will this help to ensure the highest levels of safety, but it will help to reduce the amount of resources facilities teams have to dedicate in order to manage the time-consuming and potentially costly repercussions.

Unwanted fire signals can be defined in a number of ways:

Unwanted alarms:

Where the system has responded as designed to a fire like phenomenon, such as steam from a shower, but there is in fact no real fire.

Equipment false alarm:

If the alarm results from a fault in the system, for example, an electronic fault in the system, debris in the detector head or following tampering.

Malicious false alarm:

Deliberate activation.

False alarm with good intent:

When an individual activates an alarm believing there is a fire when no fire exists.


Where the cause cannot be identified, requiring investigation to establish the cause.

For more information, go to www.tycoifs.co.uk

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Lee Jasper has been at Tyco for over eight years. He is an expert in fire and safety systems, including the technology of alarms, IP cameras, video analytics and access control.

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