The false alarm nightmare
09 May 2019
False alarms are costly, wasting time and resources of the fire service as well as being inconvenient for businesses and residents and complacency puts lives at risk. Ken Bullock looks at how education and technology can reduce the problem.
“MOST NIGHTS, the fire alarm goes off after midnight in the building where I live. It rings for about 20 minutes before security switches it off. This has been happening for almost three years. The alarm has never yet been the result of a real fire, but I fear the day when it is. Everyone’s become so complacent now that I worry no one will react when an emergency does happen – and there will be very serious consequences.”
The day-to-day experience of this multi-occupancy building resident is common across many parts of the UK and beyond. The grinding monotony of regular disturbances from false fire alarms is undermining people’s trust in fire alarm systems, altering their behaviour towards the signals that are designed to protect them, and putting lives at unnecessary risk.
A renewed focus on fire safety – spurred on by high profile fires in recent years – is very timely in addressing false-alarm-related issues.
As ever with complex problems, the solution lies in many areas. It’s a question of carefully assessing all the risks of false alarms in a specific setting, then putting the most appropriate measures in place to address them.
A vital piece in the false alarm management jigsaw – whether in domestic, public, commercial or industrial settings – is education. Ensuring that those who use and maintain buildings understand the central role they play in preventing false alarms can go a long way to reducing their occurrence. Indeed, spreading ‘fire safety and preventive awareness across society’ is a key objective of the Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice.
Some of the most commonly identified causes of false alarms include faults, dust, steam, cooking, toasting smoking and system maintenance.
Although some can’t be prevented completely, such as malicious activations, call point misuse or activations with good intent (i.e. when someone genuinely thinks a fire is breaking out), many are easy to avoid with some simple, preventative steps.
If people are clearly told about the kinds of activity that will lead to false alarms when they first come to use a building (e.g. smoking near or under detectors, keeping bathroom doors open when there are high levels of steam in the room, or leaving food grilling until it smokes), many incidents can be avoided altogether.
Allied to this is the need for building owners to make clear who building occupants can/should contact in cases where false alarms persist. All too often this fundamental step is left out – especially when building ownership or management changes.
Careful design and planning
A thorough and detailed fire risk assessment is essential for specifying a fire system that can cope with all the demands that will be placed upon it. To achieve effective false alarm management, a system needs to offer high levels of control and configurability.
There are two fundamental aspects to the technology facilitating false alarm management. The detectors, which help screen false signals in the detector heads, and then the fire panel, which analyses the signals received from sensors and interprets this information to determine if the fire signal is real or not.
Many forward-looking manufacturers, including Advanced, are combining these technologies to great effect.
Detectors are becoming increasingly sophisticated and can detect and analyse a higher number of signals from more on-board sensors than ever before. The latest models use smart algorithms to distinguish real fires from false signals caused by steam or cooking smoke for example. Some also have operating modes designed for particular areas or likely fire types.
Many detectors now also offer improved physical protection from environmental pollutants and dust/insect ingress. The best manufacturers invest considerable time and money in designing chamber shapes and filters that reduce these causes of false alarms, so there’s an ever-increasing range of options available to suit the needs of specific sites.
However, the real power of any fire system comes from combining detector data with an intelligent fire panel. At a basic level, this allows individual detectors to be used in combination or in different modes to help prevent false alarm incidents.
For example, multi-sensor detectors can be switched between heat and smoke modes to confirm a signal. Alternatively, several detectors can be combined, using double-knock or coincidence programming, to fulfil the same purpose.
Modern addressable panels are effectively powerful computers that can match detector signals with sophisticated cause-and-effect programming, bringing a range verification and investigation delay options into play that can significantly reduce false alarms.
AlarmCalm from Advanced uses ‘building areas’ to give users optimal flexibility in how false alarm management is configured. These virtual areas by default match fire zones, but can be specified independently to cover multiple zones and points, or individual points per panel. Each building area can have entirely independent false alarm management strategies, or can be grouped and share common settings.
Verification delays postpone the operation of certain outputs before the fire condition displays on the panel.
Example verification delays:
You can set a verification delay, which allows the system to automatically check if an activated device is genuinely in alarm before a fire condition is displayed on the panel.
Advanced verification delays image part 1 and 2 here
Investigation delays postpone the operation of certain outputs after the fire condition displays on the panel.
Example investigation delays:
During the hours when a building is staffed, you can set an investigation delay to trigger a pre-programmed countdown when a detector is activated. This gives staff time to attend the area in question and check if the alarm’s cause is reason to evacuate.
If the detector activation is false, you can reset the panel and avoid unnecessary evacuation. If a fire has caused the activation, you can immediately halt the delay and put the system into full alarm to initiate evacuation.
Advanced investigation delay images part 1 and 2 here
The technology within panels means they can also work with loop devices to facilitate easier maintenance, indicate levels of detector contamination and allow remote monitoring of device status and faults.
A well-designed system can achieve a great deal automatically, or with very minimal human input. However, in recent years some manufacturers have developed dedicated false alarm input devices which allow building occupants to help in alarm verification, which can be very effective.
Taking the form of restricted repeaters or loop devices (Advanced’s is called the AlarmCalm button), these allow trained residents or staff to acknowledge an alarm in a particular room/area and start a pre-programmed verification delay. If the signal clears before the end of the verification period, then the system resets. However, if the signal persists beyond the verification time, the next stage is implemented, usually a full fire alarm.
Needless to say, the best versions of these devices also have robust failsafes so they do not allow a fire signal to be delayed beyond the pre-programmed period, and they can only be used once before a system reset. They must also be configured to meet relevant local standards.
What to look for
There are a number of important questions to ask when assessing whether a system will be capable of reliable false alarm management for your site.
It’s vital to check how wide the system’s range of false alarm management options are:
Does it offer day/night sensitivity modes, on-board time clocks to control when different cause and effect strategies apply?
Can you configure investigation/verification delays for different parts of the system?
To what degree is there manual versus automatic control?
Is there an option to include alarm acknowledgement buttons?
How easily can you configure outputs?
Ideally, your chosen system will be easy to use and configure so that it is economical to install and doesn’t involve lengthy training to achieve.
It should give you maximum flexibility to set up false alarm management by zone, loop or ‘building area’ so that you can create a customised system that meets a particular building’s needs.
It should be easy to modify after installation as few buildings have fixed uses and new requirements emerge over time.
Finally, it’s worth investing in a system that can be remotely monitored and controlled.
In summary, there is no single solution for achieving optimal false alarm reduction. However, there has never been a better time to be tackling this universal issue. The sheer range and versatility of the false alarm technology now available is a dream for specifiers and installers and promises an end to our false alarm nightmares.
Ken Bullock is regional sales manager at Advanced. For more information, visit www.advancedco.com