Learning from a false alarm summit three decades ago
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2011
Although it will date me, I can remember what we labeled as a "false alarm epidemic" in the late 1970s. At the time, the problem seemed almost unsolvable. Owners felt frustrated, first responders expressed concern, installers did not know where to turn, and the system manufacturers visited installation sites to try to determine the root cause of the problem.
Those causes were eventually identified, and they generally revolved around either poor system design or non-code-compliant installation. In either case, training and education seemed to hold the key to improvement, and NFPA launched an educational program to help designers and installers learn how to comply with the requirements of the codes and standards.
As some of the false alarms continued, however, it became apparent that a deeper underlying cause existed. The culprit emerged as the sensitivity settings of virtually all recently manufactured smoke detectors. Fortunately, the stakeholders in the fire alarm industry were determined to work together to solve this problem. Because sensitivity seemed to be the root of the problem, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) hosted a meeting of smoke detector and control panel manufacturers, NFPA 72 committee members, authorities having jurisdiction, system designers, and system installers to address the issue. I was there as a committee member and industry representative; the company I worked for at the time sold fire alarm systems that were experiencing false alarms. Stakeholders attended this meeting with open minds and with the goal of solving the problem, while continuing to provide a high level of life safety from fire alarm systems using smoke detectors.
One solution that came out of this discussion was to immediately allow manufacturers to shift the sensitivity of all smoke detectors. Manufacturers also agreed to submit redesigned smoke detectors for retesting by UL with the goal of ensuring stability.
To deal with possible transient sources of false alarms, NFPA 72 committee members refined the requirements for a process labeled "alarm verification." This process would allow a smoke detector in alarm to initiate a timed reset period during which the detector or control unit would wait for the detector to enter an alarm state a second time before initiating a general alarm. If the detector remained reset without entering an alarm state the second time, the panel would not report an alarm, and the system would remain in a normal standby state. The false alarm issue shrank almost overnight.
The spirit of cooperation sparked by this collegial meeting also encouraged manufacturers to investigate new designs for smoke detectors. This ultimately led to the design of analog addressable smoke detectors and to today’s multi-criteria smoke detectors.
Over the intervening 30 years, the code committees have continually made changes to NFPA 72 to help ensure fire alarm system reliability, stability, and credibility. It should be noted that any technological change designed to reduce the false or nuisance alarm problem needs be evaluated for effects on delayed detection of real fires, particularly when life safety is at stake. Recent research indicates that there is very little room for additional delay in detection if occupants are to have enough time to escape.
We now have reports of a new problem around the number of false alarms in commercial properties. To address it, stakeholders will gather on May 3 in Fairfax, Virginia, for the Fire Alarm Response and Management Summit, hosted by NFPA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the U.S. Fire Administration. Once again, participants must come together in the same spirit of collegial cooperation that occurred at the UL meeting some 30 years ago. I applaud this new effort and wait to learn what cooperative and creative solutions emerge.
Wayne D. Moore, P.E., FSFPE, is a principal with Hughes Associates.