Technology is key to helping reduce the costs of false alarms that the UK government estimates to be in the country around £1 billion a year.
More than 337,000 false alarms were attended by the UK fire service in 2010/2011, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). The annual cost for the service to attend these alarms is estimated to be more than £1 billion. Understandably, the pressure to reduce significantly these false alarms, and the government’s spending on them, is high.
On top of these significant costs there are the less obvious risks, such as the health and safety implications of driving on blue lights. And, most importantly, if a fire crew is attending a false alarm then they cannot also be attending genuine emergencies.
Reducing False Alarms
Fire and rescue services are taking drastic measures to cut the costs associated with attending these call outs. Some are reducing the number of engines sent while others have stopped mobilising altogether in response to automatic fire alarms. However, there are other ways to reduce false alarms and the costs they generate.
Technology and training, along with good system design, can help to reduce the frequency of false alarms. There are many reasons alarms go off accidentally. The alarm may be poorly installed or it could be the incorrect system for its purpose. The device could also be fitted at the wrong height or installed in the wrong place. Importantly, if there are issues with the alarm at installation, then unless these are addressed the false alarms will continue to happen.
There are many sources of advice available to those responsible for the fire alarm system. The fire service plays an important role but manufacturers and installers of fire safety equipment can also be a great source of information. This training and advice can go a long way in helping to reduce false alarms.
The first thing on the agenda for any person responsible for certifying the safety of a building is ensuring that the correct fire alarm is installed. Research conducted by the Department for Communities and Local Government found that of the 16,400 dwelling fires last year, 37 percent occurred in places that lacked an alarm. A further 25 percent occurred in places where a fire alarm was present but non-operational.
While an efficient fire alarm is crucial for the safety of the people using the building, it will also reduce accidental and malicious set-offs. There are many things for an organisation to consider when it comes to installing the correct system. Quality design is crucial, as is proper installation and regular servicing. Many fire solutions analyse air quality and if there is a lot of dust in the area in which they are sited, they may become blocked. Without proper servicing and maintenance an issue like this could go unnoticed and create future problems.
Each system must have the appropriate detectors for the environment it is detecting. A heat-detecting system would be inappropriate for a kitchen environment as it would generally be much hotter than other areas of the building. If a heat-detection system was to be used in this kind of environment the chances are that the alarm would be set off unnecessarily and frequently.
Malicious false alarms are another frustrating issue for the fire service. These are especially prominent in schools, where children have been known to set alarms off as a prank. Fire safety systems are constantly being updated to reduce this type of set-off. In some schools, traditional call points are being reduced. Instead, every teacher is given a key and only they can set off the alarm.
In some systems a delay has been introduced, allowing a fire safety officer to inspect the area that has been flagged as a potential problem, before the alarm rings and the building needs to be evacuated. This allows the fire safety officer to confirm whether or not there is need for the fire service to attend.
It is not only essential that quality-approved fire alarm systems are used but also that they are fitted by approved installers to carry out design, commissioning and maintenance of the system. Different types of product will give different results. All devices, whether multi-sensor, thermal or optical sensor, must be supported by a central fire alarm panel. Approved fire alarm installers will be able to distinguish what device is most appropriate for a particular purpose. Optical sensor products might seem like a better, cheaper option but it will not always be the most suitable. It might work in a fire situation but it could frequently be set off accidently.
Choosing the correct approved fire system and associated technology is something not to be taken lightly. In these times of austerity, efficiency savings are a priority but it is important to select carefully the correct technology and choice of partner that will be responsible for the design, installation and maintenance. Choosing the wrong combination can have serious consequences when considering the life safety requirement.
With an accredited, approved product and installer you are buying more than just the product; you are also acquiring expertise. With complex systems, different protocols and control panels can be a minefield if you do not know what you are doing.
The fire alarm that protects a building is a crucial piece of equipment in ensuring the safety of the people inside. No organisation can afford to take risks with this type of equipment and the evacuation processes in nursing homes, schools and hospitals, for example, is even more complex than traditional situations.
There are also legal issues involved. The fire safety officer must be able to prove that the equipment is fit for purpose through completing a risk assessment. One way of ensuring that the alarm is suitable is to make sure the products are accredited and that there are adequate records to back this up. Should something go wrong and they are unable to provide this information, they may be deemed responsible and could be prosecuted.
Small Investment, Big Benefits
New developments in fire safety systems are playing an important role in reducing the number of false alarms that not only count towards the cost of running a fire service but also disrupt everyday business and the occupants of a building. There are still plenty of factors for an organisation to consider in ensuring it installs the appropriate system for their needs. But by making a comparatively small investment in a system with features built in to stop, or at least delay, an alarm activating, there will be far greater benefits when it comes to the safety of our communities.
Richard Paine is Product Manager UK & Ireland at Morley-IAS by Honeywell
For further information, go to www.morley-ias.co.uk
Main image from Approved Protection System