The dispatch center for the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue in Oregon. A recent study found that, of the more than 10,000 commercial automatic alarms received by the department over a five-year period, 99 percent were what the report termed ‘false alarms’ or ‘no-hazard incidents.’ (Photo: Robbie McClaren)
False. Nuisance. Unwanted.
The problem goes by many names, but it's a singular concern for the alarm industry, standards developers, and the fire service. Herewith, a new look at the problem of unwanted alarms, and how NFPA codes can be part of the solution.
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2011
By Fred Durso, Jr.
Tracking the number of emergency calls it receives is a top priority for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, which serves 450,000 people in nine Oregon communities. But it wasn't until the release of its 2009 study on emergency calls that the department realized the extent of the problem it has with what it terms "low-risk, high-frequency" calls: of the more than 10,000 commercial automatic alarms the department responded to during a five-year period, 99 percent were what the report described as "false alarms" or "no-hazard incidents," which Tualatin defines as alarms triggered by burnt food, welding, dust exposure, and problems with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.
"We expected a pretty high number, but we were shocked when we saw the true magnitude of the problem," says Steve Forster, Tualatin's fire marshal. "We knew we had a huge number of fire alarms, but we really thought we would see more instances where automatic alarms alerted us to an emergency."
The data prompted Tualatin Valley to rethink its alarm response. Last year, it amended its fire code to require all alarm monitoring companies to verify within 90 seconds if an actual incident is occurring before calling a 9-1-1 center. If the incident can't be verified, firefighters send a one-person response vehicle. Prior to the change, the department would send a four-person unit to check every alarm call.
Though specific to its region, Tualatin Valley's data and new response tactics may be the precursor to a nationwide trend captured in NFPA's new report, Unwanted Fire Alarms, which indicates that U.S. fire departments responded to more than two million "false alarms" in 2009, mainly from unintentional system activations and malfunctions (see "Unwanted Alarms By the Numbers"). Unintentional activations have been rising steadily over the past 20 years and often occur when a monitored alarm system is tested without prior fire department notification, or triggered by something that doesn't pose a safety threat, like burnt food that is eventually tended to. Commercial properties account for more than half of unwanted alarm responses in the majority of the NFPA report's classifications of activations.
Unwanted alarms place additional manpower and financial strains on fire departments, many of which are feeling the impact of a prolonged economic downturn. According to Economic Crisis: Staffing Survey, a report released this year by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), respondents have reported 70 fire company closures and 60 station closures nationwide, along with more than 500 fire service layoffs, since data collection began in 2008. IAFF says as many as 5,200 layoffs have been proposed during that period.
"It's the hope of the fire service and alarm industry that by reducing the number of responses to alarm activation where no emergency conditions exist, it will result in freeing up fire department resources," says Ken Willette, NFPA's division manager for Public Fire Protection. "We can't make up for the reduction in firefighting forces, but we can try to offset some of the impacts."
Though the alarm and fire communities are debating neither the reliability of automatic alarm systems nor their crucial role in saving property and lives, they have begun analyzing how to address the issue of unwanted alarms. In May, NFPA, in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), hosted the Fire Alarm Response and Management Summit in Herndon, Virginia. The summit brought together members of the fire service, as well as representatives of companies that design, make, install, and maintain alarm systems. Participants discussed the approaches fire departments have taken in response to unwanted alarms, and how current and potential provisions in NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, which is in the annual 2012 revision cycle for the 2013 edition, could prevent alarms from unnecessarily activating.
"Because of the summit, the chiefs have a better sense of how they can be part of the NFPA code-development process, and I believe the alarm industry and NFPA 72 technical committee members heard how the chiefs view the problem," Willette says. "The more informed the technical committees are, the better the code they can help develop."
Quick to respond?
This isn't the first time NFPA has offered its assistance with unwanted alarms. When substandard alarm system designs and non-code-compliant installations spurred an unwanted alarm epidemic in the 1970s, Underwriters Laboratories organized a meeting that brought together key stakeholders to address the issue. Using suggestions that came out of those discussions, NFPA initiated an educational program that helped designers and installers comply with codes and standards requirements. The unwanted alarm problem improved significantly.
Alarm designers and manufacturers contend that today's unwanted alarm problem isn't centered on whether or not alarm systems behave improperly. By many accounts, the systems respond appropriately to the environmental stimuli they're designed to detect-cooking smoke, for example-even if the alarm itself isn't in response to a life-threatening situation. NFPA's report indicates that, over the past 20 years, alarms from system malfunctions have been declining. Even so, alarms from system malfunctions accounted for more than a third of all "false or unwanted alarm responses" in 2009, according to the report.
"False alarms seem to have a different meaning to us than they do to the firefighter community," says summit attendee Rodger Reiswig, director of industry relations for alarm system developer SimplexGrinnell and NFPA 72 technical correlating committee member. "We're not getting those calls saying our smoke detectors are failing or our [fire alarm control] panels are failing. We sat back and said, 'What false alarm issue?' After we investigated it, we realized that 'false alarm' doesn't necessarily mean what we think it means."
The fire service, through the IAFC, introduced their concerns on unwanted alarms-the time, manpower, and money spent on these non-emergency responses that could be better utilized elsewhere-in January at the NFPA 72 Technical Committee Report on Proposals Meeting in San Diego. IAFC submitted more than 40 proposals to NFPA 72 on a range of subjects, including several related to a 90-second verification similar to what has been adopted by Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. The NFPA 72 Supervising Station Technical Committee rejected all of the verification proposals, citing that more information is needed to thoroughly understand the ramifications of any delay in response.
Addressing the committee's response, the IAFC plans to develop public comments in response to the NFPA 72 technical committee actions and recommendations with criteria for various building types, making alarm verification an option for authorities having jurisdiction, says IAFC President Jack Parow. "We've established relationships over the past few months with people from the alarm industry since we submitted the proposals, and we hope to develop those relationships so we can continue to work on this problem and any other problems that may come up," he says.
Some departments have already seen quantifiable benefits from the verification approach. Forster, of Tualatin Valley, claims there has been a 23 percent drop in "false automatic alarm calls" since the partial implementation of the department's 90-second verification ordinance took effect last December. He's also quick to note that what works for his department may not be the answer for others. In Las Vegas, the unwanted alarm issue became so unmanageable that Las Vegas Fire & Rescue opted for a more controversial approach: in 2002, the department stopped responding to alarm calls without a verification of an emergency. Schools, hospitals, state and federal facilities, certain institutional-type occupancies, and sprinkler-generated alarms are exempt from the regulations. At a cost of $1,250 per response, reflecting routine salary and equipment expenses, the city's fire officials view the decision as an initially risky, but necessary, one.
"The bottom line is that [this approach] works," says Tim Szymanski, public information officer for Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. "We are saving thousands of dollars in taxpayer monies, not to mention eliminating the potential of an accident that could endanger the lives of firefighters and the public we protect. We have not had any fires where an alarm system was on the property, activated, and the fire department did not show up."
In contrast to Las Vegas' response, the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department in Virginia sends an engine and truck to every commercial alarm. The department logged more than 6,500 alarm calls last year-12 of which were responses to actual fires. Keeping unwanted alarms "relatively manageable" is due to the department's fines for business owners or residents who have more than three false fire alarms in 90 days, says John Caussin, the department's assistant fire chief of operations. "What I found interesting is there are other departments still sending three or four units to an alarm call," Caussin says. "There's a great deal of dialogue that needs to go on-if we elect to reduce our response, we need to make sure we manage expectations from citizens. One of the things brought up at the summit was that the public does have an expectation that the fire department is going to show up."
Caussin is not against reducing the number of units sent to an alarm call if solid data validates this approach. However, he and other summit attendees argue that the level of statistical detail needed to make these decisions is still lacking on a national scale.
USFA's National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) is the fire service's tool for recording and documenting fires and other incidents. The system is good at detailing the situation found at the scene, but does not capture the method of alarm or how a fire department is alerted to a possible emergency. Due to its coding system, NFIRS isn't able to distinguish monitored smoke detection system alarms from stand alone smoke alarms. Moreover, 2003 was the last year the NFIRS public data file contained non-fire responses, such as "false alarms," and consequently it's the last year of data on the subject for NFPA to analyze. Local fire departments, however, can use the special studies fields in NFIRS to track things like method of alarm or cause of unwanted alarm for their own jurisdictions.
While some summit attendees craved such detail in establishing a risk-benefit analysis to determine a proper response protocol, others felt too much detail, including the NFIRS system's nearly 30 subsets of false alarms, could lead to confusion. "There is no immediate plan to change NFIRS," says Alex Furr, director of USFA's National Fire Programs Division. "Even if we were to change NFIRS, [the fire service isn't] going to have that data in the next year. It would be years before you have that additional level of detail. However, we're curious to identify the problems addressed at the summit and take the appropriate steps to address them."
In the short term, summit attendees admitted that adherence to NFPA 72 may help thwart unwanted alarms before they start. Aimed at reducing malfunctions that can produce alarms, NFPA 72 provisions require yearly testing on commercial systems, with certain system components requiring more frequent testing. Alarm company representatives at the summit noted that customers occasionally task an untrained or uncertified staff member with this job. In other cases, a lack of enforcement from authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ)-whether for budgetary reasons or differing priorities-is the culprit for infrequent or inadequate inspections.
In New York's Suffolk County, for example, the inspection and testing of alarm systems isn't required by law, says Peter Lowitt, president of Lowitt Alarms, an alarm company servicing Long Island and the New York City metropolitan area. By comparison, an ordinance more than 20 years old in neighboring Nassau County mandates such testing on every fire alarm system. If the fire department responds to an unwanted alarm, the building or premise owner must submit paperwork to Nassau County Fire & Rescue outlining the problem and what remedial action will be taken. "There's a big disparity between [the unwanted fire alarm rates in] Nassau and Suffolk counties," Lowitt says. "We're trying to maximize the effectiveness of these systems. When a system is first installed, it's shiny and new and as good as it can get. The question is, are systems serviced so they maintain their maximum effectiveness? In most cases, the answer is 'no.'"
If AHJ's don't have the capability of conducting annual inspections, summit attendees suggested the help of a third party. Remote supervising alarm systems, which retransmit a building's fire alarm system to a fire service communication center or public agency that dispatches the fire department, are the most common. According to the 2010 edition of NFPA 72, owners of these systems are required to provide annual documentation of inspection, testing, and maintenance to the AHJ's. The possibility of expanding this provision to include other systems was discussed at the summit, but some attendees agreed this approach would only work if AHJ's make enforcement a priority.
While debating departmental tactics, summit discussions also identified solutions specific to the alarm systems themselves. Technological improvements to these systems are aimed at reducing non-emergency activations. A popular topic was multi-criteria detection systems, which can automatically verify if a fire is occurring by detecting more than one element of fire, such as carbon monoxide in combination with smoke, before an alarm is triggered.
Another technological feature in the field is addressable fire alarm systems (dubbed "Point ID" in the alarm industry) that can pinpoint the exact location of triggered detectors and provide a clearer picture on emergency and non-emergency incidents. Conventional systems, by contrast, have detectors assigned to the same circuit and trigger all the detectors in a zone if one is activated.
"The next thing on the scene is trying to get information to firefighters automatically," says Reiswig of SimplexGrinnell. "They could arrive at a scene using iPads or laptops, and the fire panel could start sending information [to these devices] about the alarm or facility's command center. We're a few years away from that, but it's where we anticipate this going."
Rather than wait for technological advancements to occur, stakeholders say, clarifying some of the hazier issues currently surrounding unwanted alarms seems like a more promising response. For instance, summit attendees were unclear on the differences between nuisance, unwanted, and false alarms, and suggested a possible inclusion of definitions in NFPA 72. Their craving for data on fire department incident dispatch for alarms and extensive analyses on unwanted alarms in general seem to suggest research possibilities for the Fire Protection Research Foundation. The Foundation's Fire Detection and Alarm Research Council meets annually to discuss research needs in support of the code and consists of committee members, alarm industry members, and AHJ's.
In the meantime, NFPA and IAFC urged summit attendees and their peers to submit comments to the NFPA 72 Report on Proposals before the August 30 deadline. "Everyone in that room has the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to a strong code," says NFPA's Willette, adding that attendees requested another stakeholders' meeting in the near future. "All that is required is their commitment to fire and life safety."
Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer for NFPA Journal.
Unwanted Alarms by the Numbers
Highlights from NFPA's Unwanted Fire Alarms report
- In 2009, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 2.2 million false alarms. 45 percent were from unintended activations, 32 percent from system malfunctions, 15 percent from bomb scares and unclassified responses, and 8 percent from malicious or mischievous activities.
- In 2009, fire departments responded to 16 false alarms for every 10 fires, and 45 false alarms for every 10 structure fires.
- Responses from unintentional activations-incidents in which an interior device is tripped accidently-have generally been increasing since 1990, while malicious or mischievous false alarms have been declining over the same period.
- False alarms played a part in 29 firefighter fatalities over the past 10 years, according to NFPA's Firefighter Fatalities in the United States report published last year, with causes of death including stroke, heart attack, vehicle collision, and others.
- Residential properties accounted for the largest share of false alarms of any single occupancy group. Non-residential occupancies included public assembly; educational; institutional; mercantile and business; basic industry, manufacturing, and processing; storage; and special properties.
- In 2003, the last time the public release version of the U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Incident Reporting System contained false alarm data, false alarms from malfunctions and unintentional activations accounted for three-quarters of all false alarm responses. Unintentional smoke detector activations caused one in five alarms from these two categories.