False fire alarms… is there a technological silver bullet?
UK fire and rescue services are summoned to more than 200,000 false fire alarms every year at a total cost to businesses and the fire service of more than £1bn.
Addressing the problem acquired greater urgency in 2014 when the London Fire Brigade introduced fines for businesses that called them out more than 10 times over a 12-month period.
Avoiding false fire alarms
A landmark study involving the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Association of British Insurers and Fire Industry Association, among others, has concluded that many false fire alarms could actually be easily avoided. Fitting call point covers or stoppers to protect manual break-glass call points from accidental damage and using key switches to ‘turn off’ alarm signalling during regular weekly system testing were among the study’s initial prescriptions.
While improvements to British Standards and building regulations were also suggested as remedies, ‘responsible persons’ under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, such as business or building owners, naturally have a major role too. Commissioning the right detectors for your environment is critical. False alarms can be triggered by steam, dust, fumes, tobacco smoke, insects, aerosols, candles and humidity, among other things.
High quality smoke detectors can now tell the difference between, say, steam or aerosols and smoke. But heat detectors, which differentiate between a fire and burnt cooking, are still more suitable for kitchens than smoke detectors.
Beam detectors are triggered when an infrared beam of light is sufficiently obscured by smoke particles, and are ideal for huge areas like leisure centres, shopping centres and auditoriums.
Flame detectors, which monitor the radiation from flames, are best deployed in storage facilities with stock that is likely to flame rather than smoulder. Installed in an industrial site with a furnace or welding equipment, however, they would be a recipe for frequent false alarms.
Aspirating smoke detectors, which sample the air for smoke particles, can detect fire earlier than other kinds of detectors. False alarms are a risk for such highly sensitive alarms, though not if installed and calibrated appropriately to their environment. A number of innovations, including error detection, drift compensation and sensitivity adjustment, also reduce risk.
Ultimately though, there is no technological panacea. For a business owner, minimising false fire alarms requires the selection of high quality equipment that suits the environment; that is fitted and calibrated appropriately; which is maintained properly at appropriate intervals; and adjusted accordingly should environmental parameters change.
Content and community manager