In May 2018, a fire alarm went off at London City Airport affecting over 16,000 passengers, leaving thousands stranded on the runway when emergency services were called in to deal with the situation. Thankfully, there was no fire, but the false alarm caused a major inconvenience, with a similar incident taking place at Auckland International Airport, New Zealand a year earlier, costing airlines over NZ$1 million.
Cases such as this raise the question, whose responsibility are false alarms?
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 requires the Responsible Person to undertake a suitable and sufficient fire assessment, which should review any history of false alarms and ensure action is taken to prevent them occurring in future.
For this to happen, involvement from a number of parties is required: the building owner or occupier to designate this Responsible Person, ensuring they are adequately trained; the fire-alarm company, to install and maintain the system, making recommendations for best use; and the Fire Risk Assessor, to make recommendations for overall fire protection.
In the year ending September 2017, fire and rescue services in England attended 170,519 fires and 222,997 false alarms – 52,478 more false alarms than real fires (Fire & Rescue incidents statistics: England 2018). Around one million hours are lost by UK fire and rescue services attending false alarms costing an estimated £1 billion a year (Department for Communities & Local Government 2011).
However, the costs aren’t simply financial. Repeated false alarms can lead to complacency, making people less likely to act in real fire situations. They cause disruption to businesses, an annoyance to customers and repeated false alarms can damage a company’s reputation. They also divert fire and rescue teams away from genuine emergencies, putting lives at risk.
Technology has a role to play in the management of false alarms. The fire industry has implemented two approaches to tackling this issue – both focusing on signal verification. The first is based around detector technology, screening false signals in the detector heads themselves. Advances in the capabilities of detectors, the use of smart algorithms and more on-board sensors offer measurable improvements to signal verification.
The second focuses on the fire panel, with the real power of any system combining detector data and an intelligent fire panel, analysing the signals received, interpreting this information and determining if the fire signal is genuine. Modern addressable fire panels are powerful computers dedicated to fire operation, matching detector signals with complex cause-and-effect programming and bringing a range of verification and investigation delay procedures into play that can significantly reduce false alarms, automatically or with little human input.
In recent years, however, the involvement of building occupants has been demonstrated to be very effective, with manufacturers developing dedicated false-alarm input devices to facilitate this.
These allow validation of a local alert by the occupant of a room or apartment. On hearing a local alert and being made aware the detector has sensed a fire, the occupant can activate the input device if they believe the signal is a false alarm. This action then extends the automatic verification time by a pre-programmed period and gives additional time for a false signal to clear, allowing the fire system to reset. If the signal persists beyond the second-stage verification time, however, it will progress to a full alarm and evacuation of all occupants.
While false alarms remain a problem, they continue to remain a focus for our industry. Modern fire-alarm systems and the strategies they enable, can radically reduce false alarms, the evacuations of buildings and emergency service call-outs that result from them. However, the solutions available vary in quality and performance and it’s vital that end users and specifiers understand the options available to them at an early stage of any system design or specification.