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Counting the costs of false alarms

by Andy Clutton

infographic towerEvery time the fire service is called to a potential emergency, a substantial amount of time, money and resource is spent responding the incident. In the case of a genuine fire this is, of course, vital, and saves thousands of lives every year. However, in England and Wales, figures show that for over ten years, the majority of incidents attended by fire and rescue teams have been false alarms, rather than actual fires.

The Fire Industry Association estimates that these false alarms are costing the UK taxpayer in excess of one billion pounds every year.

As well as being a financial burden, these high levels of unnecessary alerts also have other negative consequences for both fire services and businesses.

A recent Government report suggested the average response time to non-domestic building fires in England and Wales in 2014-15 was 8 minutes 28 seconds, an increase of 21 seconds from the previous year.

Not only do false alarms distract fire and rescue teams from attending genuine incidents, they can also cost businesses significant amounts of money from lost worker productivity and, in some cases, fines.

In 2014, London Fire Brigade started charging for attending persistent false alarm calls generated by automatic fire alarm systems. The move was intended to encourage better management and maintenance of fire alarm systems across the capital.

Since the measures came into place, public buildings such as hospitals have been forced to pay out hundreds and thousands of pounds due to poorly maintained fire alarms.

With this in mind, it’s clear that reducing the number of nuisance call-outs is becoming increasingly urgent.

What can be done?

There are a number of reasons why false alarms may occur, such as burnt toast, steam and dust.

However, according to Government figures, nearly two thirds of them are due to apparatus issues. In England and Wales alone, faulty equipment accounted for more than 141,000 incidents in 2015.

In most cases, this is due to improper maintenance or installation, as even the most high-spec fire safety equipment can malfunction if neglected or fitted incorrectly.

In the midst of these startling Government numbers, recent research from Hochiki Europe also uncovered some worrying findings. Data from a 2015 survey showed that one in five safety system installers are worried that building managers in Europe are still viewing fire safety maintenance as an unnecessary expense or as simply a tick-box exercise.

The study concluded that people responsible for fire safety in Europe must do more to address the issue of false alarms.

Next steps

 There are a number of simple actions that organisations can take to reduce fire safety product malfunctions in their premises.

For example, by choosing a reputable installer to fit intelligent, high integrity systems, building owners and managers can help minimise any potential issues from the moment of installation.

During the lifecycle of the fire safety system, regular inspections and servicing of equipment must be undertaken and recorded in a logbook according to recommendation in BS 5839. By doing this, building owners and managers can accurately build up a pattern of false alarms, as well as stay on top of the required maintenance processes, ensuring compliance.

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