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Advances in false-alarm management

22 March 2017

For anyone who doubts the extent of the problem of false fire alarms, Phil Calvey, of Advanced, had a sobering statistic: in England in 2014/15, there were 40 per cent more false alarms than actual fires.

In case those listening to his presentation at the opening session of the Fire Safety Seminar Theatre today (21 March) still didn’t get it, the estimated cost of false alarms in the UK overall is more than £1 billion a year.

As well as the cost to companies in the form of lost downtime, the cost of the fire service’s time and resources is ultimately borne by the taxpayer. As Phil pointed out, many local fire services now charge for call-outs to false alarms – especially if they are a regular event.

There is also, potentially, a cost to life. Phil explained: “Regular false alarms can lead to complacency among staff. Consequently, if there is a real fire, their response will be delayed. And when the fire service has to respond, it could mean they are being diverted from a real fire, or other emergency.”

So what is the industry doing about the problem of false alarms? Said Phil: “We are campaigning and raising awareness among end-users, specifiers and installers. Work is ongoing to create new and tighten existing standards – for example, EN54 part 12, covering compatibility of system components, and BS 5839-1. There is also innovation in the fields of system solutions, flexibility and configuration choices, and control and intervention options.”

He then went on to elaborate the common causes of false alarms, which include everything from dusts and vapours, to faulty systems, inadequate maintenance, and even malicious activation. The key thing, said Phil, is to identify the problem before looking for a solution.

He continued: “The first thing to do is, of course, a risk assessment, i.e. a thorough review of the system and strategies needed. Then identify the correct detector for the job. Flexibility of the software is also important – every site and every building is different, so systems have to be designed individually. There should be a service tool available, which provides an analysis of the system. And finally: make sure the products you select conform to the relevant standards.”

Phil acknowledged that there is a wide range of false alarm-management options available, including those with day/night sensitivity modes, on-board timer clocks and manual controls to switch between sensitivities. Other software factors he advised his audience to consider are ease of configuration, flexibility, i.e. easy to set up by zone, area, etc., easy to modify post-installation.

The two main types of management options are alarm verification – whereby the system automatically checks itself if an alarm is genuine – and investigation delays, which involve a physical check/human input. Alarm verification systems involve a delay while the system checks itself. They will subsequently activate the alarm if, for example, the sensitivity mode changes from smoke to heat; if a second detector activates during the investigation of the first activation; or if the maximum number of areas in the verification process is exceeded.

Phil then explained how investigation delays work: essentially, a human must accept responsibility for delaying a fire alarm. They delay the operation of certain outputs after a fire condition displays on the panel. But he warned: “These systems should only be used when there is a responsible person on site.”

Phil summed up: “We need to focus as an industry on stamping out false alarms. We can do this by developing more sophisticated technology. At the user end, you can take time to choose the right system for your site or building, and also choose the right fire alarm-management option.”

For more information, visit https://uk.advancedco.com/