False alarms can be attributed to numerous factors and can contribute to a myriad of problems for property owners and property management teams.
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2007
By Glen Kitteringham, M.S.C., CPP
Nuisance fire alarms have long been the bane of the commercial high-rise environment. They are disruptive to the smooth operation of the building. They can cost money, as they generally necessitate either the partial or full evacuation of tenants. They contribute to a loss in productivity and lost revenue; and false alarms may train many tenants to ignore fire alarms the next time they happen, thereby creating an unsafe work environment. Further, they create wear and tear on building systems whether it is the fire alarm system, building HVAC (heating, venting, air conditioning) equipment, or security systems that all activate or deactivate as per programming. Building management staff are redirected from their regular duties and reassigned to responding to manage the alarm situation. Contractor work is generally suspended for the duration especially in the fire alarm zones. Finally, it is well documented that fire crews run the risk of injury and death as they respond to alarms. They are taken away from legitimate alarms, create wear and tear on their vehicles, and have their valuable time wasted.
It was for these reasons that in August, 2003, I grew concerned about the high number of fire alarms, both legitimate and false, occurring in three large commercial high-rise properties in
The approach the management group for Brookfield Properties took was to first capture as much data on individual alarms as possible to determine what was causing the false alarms. Initially, data on date and time, cause of the alarm, building, and location were captured and analyzed. Even though this program was initiated in the fall of 2003, it was decided to go back to January, 2002, for a start date. There were 51 alarms in the three properties, all large multi-towered commercial high-rise properties ranging from 1.7 to 2.3 million square feet (518, 160 to 701,040 square meters), each with several thousand occupants. When the data for 2003 were analyzed, indeed the overall number of alarms was increasing, as there were 60 alarms for that year.
The initial assessment determined there were three types of alarms: legitimate, false, and unknown. The legitimate alarm category took into account any legitimate source of alarm that resulted in the activation of the building alarm system. Such alarms were electrical explosions, various equipment overheating creating smoke and fire conditions, spontaneous combustion of rags, dishwasher catching on fire, and other such similar occurrences. On average from 2002 through 2006, the number of legitimate alarms was 21 percent of the total number of alarms experienced in the five years of data collection and analysis. Interestingly, in 2006 the total number of legitimate alarms dropped by almost 8 percent from the previous four years even though most of the focus of the initiative had been on reducing false alarms.
Unknown alarms initially were a much higher percentage. Over the course of the five years of incidents, this percentage ranged from a high of 15.7 percent in 2002, 15 percent in 2003, 5.55 percent in 2004, 2 percent in 2005, and 11.85 percent in 2006. The biggest reason for the overall reduction in unknown alarms is that investigating the cause of every alarm is now part of a new procedure and detailed investigations are conducted. This was a shift in mindset from previous procedures: when alarms occurred, the panel was reset and everyone went back to work without determining what had happened and what should happen to ensure it would not occur again. Now, when the cause of an alarm has been deemed unknown, it is only after a thorough investigation has been conducted and building management truly does not know.
False alarms accounted for 70 percent of the 244 alarms. After reviewing the alarms, they were categorized as User Error, System Malfunction, Work Done without Notification, and Damage to the System. Further analysis showed that User Error is a training/education issue. System Malfunction is a maintenance issue, Work Done without Notification is a lack of communication, and Damage to the System is either accidental or deliberate.
As there were multiple reasons for the alarms, it was determined that multiple strategies would be needed to address each issue. Additional training on the overall fire alarm system would be required for any person coming into contact with the fire alarm system. Building engineers and security staff were provided with additional training by system representatives. Further, in-depth training sheets were developed, allowing staff to have step-by-step instructions on managing the various fire panels in each of the three buildings. For example, staff was provided with instructions on how to take a point off-line when some type of work was being conducted in order to not activate the system. Security staff and building engineers worked more closely with contractors who were coming into the buildings. In the past, the contractor might be asked if any work would impact the fire alarm system. Often, the response was “No.” Now, staff ask contractors if cutting, welding, dusting, vacuuming, painting, or moving equipment is part of their work plan. This led to a reduction in alarms as contract staff became much more aware of the impact of their activities on the building fire alarm system. Additionally, when work was being conducted on any aspect of the fire alarm system, security, building engineers, and contractors would meet daily to discuss what work was being conducted on that day. All parties knew what work was being conducted, who was working where in the building, and if an alarm was activated, responding staff would potentially have a better idea what may have caused the alarm. This provided vital information to responding fire crews.
Additional education came in the form of a letter to all tenants and registered contractors working for either the property manager or tenants. The letter identified the
System malfunctions, the second smallest component of failures, can be attributed to such things as devices shorting out, faulty detectors, release of sprinkler heads due to fatigue, and occasion failures of electronic components. Only 14 percent or 24 of the total number of alarms were activated due to system failures. Considering that there were three systems in place installed over the past 10 years, the occasional failure of a component can be expected.
Work done without notification was the number two reason for alarms. Perhaps one of the more frustrating causes of alarms, since they are avoidable, 53 alarms of this type occurred. Whether a lack of communication between property management departments, between tenant and management group, between contractor and building engineers, or between tenant and contractor, this was a challenge to overcome. Often contractors would attempt to bypass building staff altogether when arriving at the building and get immediately to work without informing anyone of what they were to be doing. Despite a robust authorization permit process in place with safety and hot work permits required, as well as constantly educating tenant and contractors about the potential impact their activities can have upon a building fire alarm system, some contractors always failed to communicate their activities with building staff. On several occasions, security staff on patrol would find contractors working in the buildings without notification. When this occurred, they would be forced to shut down until the proper permits were completed and authorization given. On a year-to-year basis, great strides have been made in this area. Initially, in 2002, 17 alarms were caused due to a lack of communication. This number has steadily declined, so in 2006 only six alarms across all three properties were created this way. Considering that tenants and contractors who cause alarms have the city fine passed on to them, they are much more aware of alarms.
Without exception, all 12 incidents involving damage to the system were caused by sprinkler heads knocked off on purpose or by accident. Vandals caused some of the alarms, but most were caused by inattentive contractors either swinging sledge hammers while conducting demolition of tenant space or overloaded vehicles entering underground parking structures coming in contact with sprinkler heads.
Manual of Operations: Fire Alarm System
In addition to tracking, trending, and analyzing fire alarms, one of the responses to the unacceptable number of alarms was to develop a manual of operations for the building fire alarm systems. Similar to the process of developing health and safety manuals, building operations, security, and construction staff met initially to conduct a root cause analysis of the alarms. As identified previously, several reasons were discovered to cause alarms. The response, therefore, was to develop a multi-pronged approach in order to reduce them.
As identified, training, communication, system damage, system failures, and legitimate fires were identified as the chief culprits for causing alarms. Therefore, the management team realized that increased training for all staff was necessary. This consisted of both formal and informal training. A qualified trainer was brought in initially to introduce staff to fire alarm systems, fires in commercial properties, and the inter-connectedness of suppression, notification, and HVAC systems. This gave employees a better understanding of how everything worked together as well as of the complexity of the system. Additional training was provided by system manufacturers and installers to ensure staff knew what was expected of them. Finally, training sheets were developed detailing every process required to successfully manage the fire alarm systems. This process was carried out for each of the three departments that have the most interaction with the system on a daily basis. Additionally, a reporting process was put in place to ensure senior management was informed on a regular basis about the number of alarms occurring, what was being done about them, and any future actions required. Additionally, the primary electrical contractor, who has the most interaction with the building staff and fire alarm system, is regularly involved in meetings with operations, security, and the base building electrical engineering contractor. Meetings between all four groups in all the buildings are held every other month with minutes taken at each meeting. Items are actionable, followed up on, and responded to.
The general guidelines created for the manual of operations for the fire alarm system were outlined in several procedures. The first procedure, Management of the Fire Alarm System, is the starting point. It contains reference to the commitment toward system management, operating and responding to the building fire alarm system, including continuous improvement, and prevention of alarms, both legitimate and nuisance. Following is a section on Adds, Moves, and Changes to the system itself, whereby a tracking system was created to manage the constant changes being applied to the system. Already discussed were operations, construction, and security procedures. Next, the procedure for fire alarm reporting and investigation whereby all fire alarm system incidents that occur within the complex that generate an alarm or fire safety hazard situation are to be reported and investigated. The committee will conduct reviews as to the cause and conditions and will ensure any follow-up action is completed to prevent another occurrence of a similar event. Following this is the Long-term Fire Alarm System Critical Infrastructure Review Procedure. The entirety of the fire alarm protection system comprises a number of interconnecting systems including the fire alarm system, standpipe system, sprinklers, exhaust and stair pressurization fans, elevators, electro-mechanical systems (access control system), emergency power, fire extinguishing equipment, and voice communication system. These components are considered to be part of the building critical infrastructure and should be treated as such. Changes to one component may impact one, some, all, or no other components. A review of changes to the various components needs to be made to determine if there will be an impact upon the other components and ultimately to the building occupants. The record keeping policy takes into consideration the retention of documents and files that are relevant to proper operation of the fire alarm system. All historical documents, including training records, minutes of committee meetings, incident reports, trending analysis reports, and system audit reports are retained in Central Filing. Other important procedures included a section on maintenance and service agreements, manufacturers’ system manuals, and employee training.
Complexity of the system
A final note must be made regarding the number of alarms experienced. Considering the size and complexity of the three fire alarms installed in the buildings, it is actually a wonder there are not more alarms. A building fire alarm system can almost be considered a living, breathing entity constantly growing and shrinking with components added and deleted on a regular basis. Additionally, a relatively recent article published in this magazine about the growth in complexity in fire alarm systems reinforces the challenges for staff who need considerable familiarization with these systems in order to be comfortable with them.
When we first realized that we were having a problem with too many alarms, it looked intimidating and almost too large a problem to deal with. However, as with so many other things, problems are always much more manageable when they are broken down into smaller components. This was the approach taken by staff in the buildings. It was recognized that the same problems were occurring equally in all properties; therefore, the task was to work as a group in overcoming those problems. It took time. It took 18 months of meeting weekly between operations, construction, and security just to conduct a root cause analysis, determine a course of action, create a manual of operations, and then implement it. This program is now in its fifth year of tracking, trending, analyzing, and implementing changes. The buildings collectively experienced a 10-percent drop both in 2004 and 2005 and a further 40-percent drop in 2006, resulting in a total 50-percent drop from the high of 60 alarms in 2003 to 30 in 2006.
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