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Author(s): Wayne Moore. Published on November 1, 2017.

In Compliance | NFPA 72

Why technology alone is not enough to reduce the problem of false alarms


In 2013, the Fire Protection Research Foundation released a report called “Development of a Risk-Based Decision Support Tool to Assist Fire Departments in Managing Unwanted Alarms—Literature Review,” which showed that the number of fire department emergency responses in the United States more than doubled from 1980 to 2009.

With fire department budgets unable to keep pace with this rising workload volume, there has been a growing concern around the country about the cost of unnecessary responses. From 1980 to 2009, the number of emergency responses to fires fell by more than half, but emergency responses to “false” alarms more than doubled.

The unwanted alarm issue has changed over the last three decades from a problem of malicious false alarms to an issue of non-fire actuations of automatic detection and alarm systems. While some of that change is a result of the increased use of carbon monoxide detectors, the number of false alarms caused by poorly designed, installed, and maintained fire alarm and detection systems remains unacceptable.

So where do we stand in 2017? Stakeholders report that they continue to experience an undiminished number of false alarms. The technical committee that writes the portion of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, that deals with detection continues to develop requirements that address this false alarm issue with minimum requirements for the design, installation, inspection, testing, maintenance, and use of all fire alarm systems. These requirements alone, however, have not reduced the incidence of false alarms.

Some observers believe that the use of new technologies can fix the false alarm problem. Although technology may help cure some of the design faults and mitigate a few of the installation mistakes, technology by itself cannot solve the problem.

Most of the new fire alarm control unit technology uses addressable architecture. This allows first responders, owners, and fire alarm system technicians to know exactly which detection device has operated. However, this piece of information is only useful if someone records the information and notes whether the same device initiates another false alarm. Assuming that information is tracked, two false alarms from the same device should constitute the maximum number acceptable. Once the same device initiates a second false alarm, a technician should determine why the device operated; the device should either be changed, or the installed environment of the device should be reviewed to determine the existence of any factors that may have led to the second initiation. This procedure would enable changes to the type of detection used or a relocation of a device affected by the local environment.

Speaking of devices, newer smoke detectors have built-in algorithms to help ensure that an initiation occurs only in the event of a “real” fire. In some cases, the use of such a multi-criteria smoke detector could negate the environmental influence. Additionally, many of the fire alarm control units contain an optional smoke detector alarm verification option. This feature, designed to reduce unwanted alarms, requires the control unit to receive an initiation, sound a local signal, reset the detector, and wait for a second initiation within a set time period before sounding a general alarm. While helpful in some cases, the NFPA 72 technical committee felt that this feature should only be used as a last resort.

We should expect fewer false alarms now and in the future by using new technology to help reduce the incidence of those false alarms. But new technology cannot reduce or eliminate false alarms from systems that are not properly designed, installed, inspected, tested, maintained, or used. But if better designs and installations of these systems are coupled with improved inspection, testing, and maintenance programs, we will continue to lower the fire alarm systems’ false alarm rate.

WAYNE D. MOORE is vice president at Jensen Hughes.