False Alarms and Unwanted Fire Signals

False Alarms

** Notice: Important procedure change for AFA call handling in Commercial premises 0900-1700hrs, Monday to Friday [read more]

1. What are they and why are they a problem?

It is a misconception that false alarms are simply an annoyance or inconvenience. In reality they impact considerably on the cost of our service provision to the rate payer, the prosperity of commerce and more importantly, the safety of the public of Durham & Darlington.

There are three types of false alarms:

  • Malicious (or Hoax)

where a call is made in the knowledge that there is no fire

  • Unwanted Fire Signals

From fire alarm and fire detection systems, where alarms operate due to a mechanical or electrical fault, or false activation by non-fire conditions (e.g. cooking fumes, dust, cigarette smoke etc) and the Fire Service is summoned.

  • Good Intent

where a call to the fire and rescue service is made in the mistaken belief that a fire has occurred e.g. a smell of smoke from a bonfire

So what are the problems?

2. Cost to commerce

The latest figures published by the government estimate that the cost of false alarms in the UK is around £1 billion a year. Much of this cost is borne by commerce from lost production and interruptions to business.

  • Major disruption to business effectiveness, efficiency, profitability & services
  • Frequent false alarms in a building can cause staff to become complacent & less willing to react when a fire alarm actuates

3. Cost to County Durham & Darlington Fire & Rescue Service

  • Diverting essential services from emergencies (putting life and property at risk)
  • Cost to business of Retained firefighters being released.
  • Unnecessary risk to crew & public whilst responding (accidents)
  • Disruption to arson reduction, community safety & fire safety activities (education, smoke alarms etc.)
  • Disruption to training of operational personnel
  • Impact on the environment of unnecessary appliance movements (noise and CO2 emissions)
  • Drain on public finances

4. Danger to other road users

Any fire call received by Durham & Darlington Fire & Rescue Service is attended by fire engines responding under ‘blues and twos’, and although our drivers are trained to the highest standard, they and other road users are unnecessarily exposed to increased danger at these times.

5. Cost to Durham & Darlington council tax payers

The associated cost to the people of Durham & Darlington is approximately £916 per call* and with 692 turnouts to false alarms in business premises for fiscal year 2019/20, this suggests that the cost is in the region of £650,000.

Even with the charging policy which has now been introduced, some of the cost of sending fire engines to false alarms comes out of your pockets.
If a fire engine is at a false alarm, it is not available to respond to a real fire. False alarms put our communities at risk!

Is there an answer?

The simple answer is ‘Yes there is’.

We have developed, and are continuing to introduce, a series of strategies to reduce the number of false alarm calls we receive. Clearly we do not want to discourage people from making a 999 call to us, or raising the alarm to warn others, if they genuinely believe that there is a fire, but there are a number if things that can be done to reduce them.

With your help, we want to achieve continuing reductions in calls that are false.

Unwanted Fire Signals from Automatic Fire Alarm Systems

“…a false alarm becomes an Unwanted Fire Signal at the point the Fire & Rescue Service are requested to attend…”

By far the biggest problem we face is the number of false alarm calls we receive from automatic fire alarm and fire detection systems. Generally the causes of these unwanted activations fall into two broad categories. These are:

Faulty equipment alarms

Perhaps the most serious of the categories – and the one where fast action can have the biggest potential impact – is an alarm caused by faulty equipment. Reducing false alarms starts at the design stage, and every effort should be made to design the likelihood of false alarms out of an installation, with all necessary information recorded and shared with the customer.

Article 18 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO) requires the Responsible Person to ‘appoint one or more competent persons to assist in undertaking the preventive and protective measures’. Where the protective measures include a fire alarm and fire detection system, a proper service and maintenance programme is essential to ensure the fire alarm and detection system works when it is needed most. British Standards recommend that the number of service visits per annum should be a minimum of twice a year (with the actual number dictated by a suitable and sufficient risk assessment).

Even the best-installed, best-in-class equipment, of course, deteriorates over time, but this risk and the likelihood of failure can be minimised with a professional specialist service and maintenance agreement that will extend the overall life expectancy of the equipment, and reduce the costs associated with false alarms.
Further information on this subject is available in BS 5839-1:2002.

False activation by non-fire conditions

Next to faulty equipment, these activations produce the second largest number of false alarms. Common amongst the causes are:

  • Cooking fumes (cooking taking place in inappropriate areas, or incorrectly sited detector heads)
  • Dust from work or maintenance processes (during alterations, hot work with insufficient control measures)
  • Insufficient or incorrect training (testing fire alarm systems without notifying monitoring centres, work on systems without first isolating them)

Under the RRO, we consider it to be the duty of the Responsible Person to ensure that their fire alarm and fire detection systems are correctly maintained by a competent person, and any systems that continue to give false activations are indicative of a failure in the management of the ‘preventive and protective measures’ required by law.

Serious consideration should be given to disabling the link to Alarm Receiving Centres (A.R.C.) whilst the premises are occupied. Please contact your local District Fire Safety Officer for further information.

Is it a real fire?

It is clear that too many false alarms can prejudice the safety of occupants, who may not react correctly when the system responds to a real fire if they have experienced a number of false alarms. Complacency can be a very dangerous thing at the best of times but complacency that leads to ignoring an alarm simply because it is highly unlikely to be genuine could be quite literally fatal.

How to investigate

  • Where possible, investigate in pairs.
  • Have another member of staff at the alarm panel and remain in contact (mobile phone or short range radio)
  • Gather any information from staff, or the alarm panel, to indicate where your search should be.
  • When investigating look for smoke, listen for unusual crackling noises, is it unusually hot?
  • Before opening any doors, feel the door with the back of your hand, as high up the door as you can reach, for signs of heat. If it is hot do not open the door.
  • Remember you are looking for signs of a fire, not a fire itself.

At any time if you suspect or find a fire, get out and call the fire and rescue service on 999.

In September 2009 CFOA guidance was published aimed at severely reducing unwanted fire signals. Durham & Darlington Fire & Rescue Service will adopt the ethos of this document on this date.  The guidance document can be found at the following website:- http://www.cfoa.org.uk/10863

Although now no longer published, a booklet produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government offering good advice to those managing automatic fire alarm systems, is available for download using the following link: www.communities.gov.uk/archived/publications/fire/guide

False Alarms ‘Good Intent’

We do not want to discourage anyone from making an emergency 999 call or operating a fire alarm, if they genuinely believe there is a fire.

We do, however, advise that anyone who is carrying out an activity that may give someone cause to think a fire has started, to inform the necessary people of their activity. This may include:

Informing the Fire and Rescue Service that they are burning rubbish
Informing managers or occupants of a building that they are carrying out hot work

If you require any  further information regarding unwanted fire signals or any other Fire Safety queries please contact the Fire Safety Section on 0191 3324309

*’The 2008 Ready Reckoner Toolkit' provided by CLG.


** Notice: Important procedure change for AFA call handling in Commercial premises 0900-1700hrs, Monday to Friday [read more]

The Service has a policy regarding unwanted fire signals which you can read in the document below: