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Hochiki Europe issues detailed advice on false alarm prevention

16 January 2023

HOCHIKI EUROPE has outlined guidance designed to improve fire detection performance for building owners, ‘Responsible Persons’ and facilities management teams alike.

ALL ‘RESPONSIBLE Persons’ for commercial buildings – and including shared areas in houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), blocks of flats and maisonettes – are required by law to ensure that fire safety-related equipment and procedures are in place to detect, alert and notify all occupants of the building when it comes to how they should act in the event of a fire.

This is to ensure that, should there be a fire episode, it’s easily detectable such that those inside the building are alerted as soon as possible to evacuate and that the local Fire and Rescue Service has the required amount of time and information to hand in order to prevent the fire from spreading.

Insurance policies for commercial properties may be invalid if it becomes evident that the fire detection and alarm system at the premises was inadequate. It’s also worth noting that any device and/or system could trigger a false alarm if it’s not properly installed, not fit for the environment or not well maintained.

Any false alarm can lead to lost production time or fines being issued by local Fire and Rescue Services. Too many false alarm episodes can lead to complacency among building occupants or their loss of confidence in the reliability of the alarm system.

Areas for consideration

It’s worth noting some of the considerations building owners, ‘Responsible Persons’ and facilities management teams might want to focus on when it comes to false alarms and how the compliant installation and maintenance of fire detection system can help in preventing the latter. Guidance is provided in the Code of Practice for the Design, Installation, Commissioning and Maintenance of Fire Alarm Systems in Non-Domestic Premises (ie BS 5839 Part 1).

It's always recommended that fire detection system installation and maintenance is undertaken by a company that’s registered with BAFE, only specifies products approved to local standards and holds up-to-date certifications.

The environment will dictate the type of fire detection technology used. For example, a cold store warehouse versus a dry store warehouse will require very different types of fire detection due to the temperatures at which the fire devices have to work. Ensuring that fire alarm cables are clearly marked and separated from other services in the building will help to avoid electrical interference that can trigger a false alarm.

During installation, air conditioning units are to be avoided when siting detection equipment that relies on the presence of smoke, while careful consideration is needed for air ducts as these can interfere with smoke detectors, potentially drawing smoke away or blowing contaminated air into detectors.

When installing detection devices, it’s important to make sure they are out of reach from casual vandalism or direct tampering by building tenants. The BS 5839 standard was updated in 2017 to include the recommendation of fitting mechanical covers to Call Points in public areas, thereby reducing the temptation for malicious activations. The idea being that, in order to operate the Call Point, an individual needs to lift the cover as well as press the button.

In some areas such as kitchens, shower rooms and saunas, specialised extraction systems will need to be employed in order to keep detectors free from steam or other contaminants. Other specific environmental considerations regarding air-borne contaminants to consider at the installation stage could be for nursing homes (in relation to skin and dust), event spaces (smoke and steam), hotels (aerosols and steam) and restaurants (smoke and flames).

Ongoing maintenance

When it comes to maintenance, there are some elements to consider when looking to reduce false alarms. Most importantly, the maintenance contract should be with a competent service provider and preferably one certificated to BAFE SP203 Part 1.

Any faults should be reported at the fire alarm control panel within 100 seconds so it’s also important to carry out regular and proper maintenance of the panel itself. Every device on the system should be tested at least once per year.

Most modern addressable fire alarm systems have the capability of reducing the occurrence of false alarms by using features such as drift compensation, which is a function that checks the smoke chamber every 24 hours and increases the alarm threshold based on the level of contamination found in the chamber. This way, the chamber sensitivity remains the same instead of becoming more sensitive the more it’s contaminated.

Badly contaminated detectors should be either cleaned or replaced by a professional. Again, a detector's maintenance status can be reported at the fire panel.

Parts of a building may be repurposed over time, such as storage space being converted into an office. Building owners need to bear in mind that, as these spaces change in terms of their usage, the detection system may need to be updated in parallel.

It’s also worth noting that, during building works, smoke, dust and heat can be generated. On that basis, steps need to be taken to cover any smoke detectors within the working areas (isolating them will not prevent the chambers from becoming contaminated by dust) and isolate any heat detectors so as to avoid false activations. These areas should be patrolled regularly and re-enabled as soon as is practicable. By way of another example, beam detectors are particularly vulnerable to ladders – or powered access equipment – blocking the signal and initiating a fault or a fire condition.

Devices can be relocated to accommodate a building change of use or the introduction of a new risk, but this process must be carried out by a qualified fire system engineer to ensure they remain fit for purpose in their new location.

Up-to-date information

The overall age of the detection system could be a contributing factor to false alarm activations. As the system and devices age over time, their effectiveness at dealing with false signals could be reduced. Generally, most system manufacturers recommend that their equipment has a ten-year lifespan and so this should be factored-in at the consultation and specification stage.

To avoid false alarms and deal with any occurrences efficiently and safely, building owners or facility managers must ensure that the businesses or tenants using the building – either temporarily or on a more permanent basis – are given detailed and up-to-date information on fire escape routes and the location(s) of firefighting equipment.

They should also be educated about the fire alarm system and activities to be avoided, such as smoking or vaping in the building, keeping areas clean, being aware of sensors outside kitchen and bathroom doors, but most importantly, they must be informed about the serious implications of tampering with the alarm system or its devices, which could lead to false alarms or, even worse, no alarms being generated at the outbreak of a real fire.

Home Office research conducted for 2022 shows that just 2% of incidents from automatic fire alarms were the result of an actual fire. Frustratingly, most of the false alarms experienced could easily have been avoided by following some of the tips above, understanding the importance of proper maintenance and ensuring that the correct type of life safety product is installed for the environment in the first place.

*To learn more about how to reduce false alarms, register to view Hochiki Europe’s CPD webinar on False Alarm Reduction