Solving the problem of unwanted false alarm call outs is a difficult business.  London Fire Brigade's UwFS specialist Chris Lloyd Williams explains.

Firefighters working in cities and towns have seen it all before. The bells go down, the crew go out to an AFA (automatic fire alarm), they arrive at the job and find there is no fire. The alarm might have been caused by burnt toast or even a faulty alarm system, but the result is wasted time and money, and a crew taken away from real emergencies, training or fire safety work.

With a third of all emergency calls the London Fire Brigade attends caused by false alarms to automatic fire alarm systems, it was clear that work needed to be done to tackle this problem. These calls are not fires after all, but are calls caused by alarm systems that are insufficiently managed, inadequately maintained, poorly positioned or negligently activated.

Five years ago the problem was even worse, before the Brigade implemented measures to educate building owners and filter these unwanted fire signals (UwFS) with new policies for our 999 control officers. In 2005-2006, 52,899 calls were made to the Brigade to attend false alarms and the latest figures show that in 2009/10 this has been reduced by 15 per cent to 44642. But how has this been done and why is it such a big problem?

A false alarm is the sounding of an AFA for some reason other than fire. When the fire service attends one of these jobs, it is called an unwanted fire signal. In a city with so many offices, shops, hospitals, hotels and student halls of residence, AFAs can clearly be a real headache.

It is important to point out that not all fire detection systems are bad. In fact, we want to see more systems installed as the benefits of automatic fire detection and fire alarm systems are widely acknowledged. Alarms provide early warning in the event of fire making them vital to the effectiveness of emergency evacuation plans and therefore reducing risk to life. They also assist in minimising property damage through early warning for initial firefighting.

However, if these systems are not designed, installed, maintained and managed to a satisfactory standard they have the potential to generate false alarms.

The Scale of the Problem 

With around 50,000 false alarm calls each year - and 20 per cent of these calls to persistent problem buildings where we will attend more than 20 times a year - this leads to an impact on many levels. These needless and repeated calls drain resources and take firefighters away from the vital work and training which could mean that our response to a real incident is affected.  

In addition, unnecessary vehicle movements contribute to environmental pollution and increase the risk of road traffic accidents if we are travelling on the bell to an 'emergency'. And it is not just the fire service that suffers, as excessive false alarms lead to complacency in evacuations and impact on the UK economy as staff wait outside their place of work for the fire brigade to arrive. From our experience a poor record on false alarms can be a key indicator of poor fire safety management.

Changing Mobilisation 

Before we could look at ways to reduce the amount of calls at the front line, we needed to look at managing our operational response to these calls. In 2004-2005, the Brigade put in place changes to the way it responds to AFAs. These changes, which sought to minimise the number of appliances attending each incident and the risks associated with mobilisation, were implemented in two stages:

  • From April 2004, aerial appliances ceased to be mobilised as part of the pre-determined attendance (PDA) to AFA calls
  • From September 2004, the PDA for AFA calls was reduced to one pumping appliance (except where adjustment for risk is made).

This has reduced the impact on Brigade resources when responding to individual AFAs but did not reduce the overall number of AFAs the Brigade attended.

The Pilot 

In 2006 the Brigade started a pilot in Westminster to look at UwFS reduction. Station Manager Steve Norman visited premises in the borough that produced frequent UwFS and gave advice to the responsible persons on how they could introduce improvements. There was a lack of awareness among building owners and managers of the problems these alarms caused and their impact on the Brigade. The pilot's main focus was on individual premises and with a little a bit of advice and application from the Brigade they could improve their fire safety management of the fire alarm systems. 

The success of the pilot led to the development of a cohesive strategy that was adopted across London. The Brigade contributed significantly to a CFOA Working Group which worked on the national policy on the reduction of false alarms and UwFS. In June 2009 we brought in a policy largely based on the national one which outlined how the Brigade would tackle the issue. The Brigade has achieved the reduction by using inspecting officers and firefighters. It has also introduced a call filtering system at its control centre.

Firefighter's Involvement 

Involving firefighters is especially important as they are first on the scene when the Brigade is called to a false alarm. For use when attending false alarms, they have been issued with tags that they can place on alarm systems to show to the building owner and engineers that action needs to be carried out. This enforces the idea that the Brigade should not be called out to manage unreliable systems. If a likely cause is found then crews will give preventative advice, for example, suggest the isolation of detectors during building works.

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, the Brigade cannot issue enforcement notices or prosecutions based on UwFS alone. But they can where fire safety contraventions have occurred, such as if the proper evacuation procedure has not been followed. Poor management of fire alarms is often an indication of other fire safety failings. If firefighters notice this then they will inform the Brigade's fire safety team.

Using Fire Safety Officers   

Previously, a fire safety audit of a premise would not include a review of the fire alarm system performance. Assessment of fire alarm performance is now an audit standard and the Brigade will inspect a building if firefighters are regularly called to UwFS there. Inspecting officers can give advice to the responsible person to try and resolve the problem. In more serious cases they will write a letter informing them that the level of unwanted alarms is too high and needs to be reduced. Three months later they will inspect the premises to see if the problem has been resolved. Officers will refer cases to the central policy team for a review of response and legal action options if the false alarms continue.

Call Filtering 

A call filtering policy was introduced by the Brigade in July 2009. If a caller from the premises speaks to a 999 control officer they will be asked to confirm whether there is a fire. If it is or if they do not know, then the Brigade will attend. If they can confirm that the alarm has not been caused by fire then no fire engines will attend. In addition to this the Brigade is working with alarm receiving centres and social alarm monitoring industries to prevent unnecessary and unwanted alarm calls. This is being closely monitored and the Brigade is constantly looking at how to reduce attendance at premises where the alarm system does not provide reliable information, which may include responding to these premises only after we have received confirmation of a suspected fire via a 999 call.

Partnership Working 

London Fire Brigade recently signed a landmark agreement with Hilton hotels to formalise fire safety procedures and reduce the number of false alarms at their hotels. It was identified that the chain had a high level of UwFS, but through working with the Brigade, this has led to a reduction of two thirds since 2005 across 16 hotels in the capital. This also resulted in improved fire safety and a reduction in real fires.

Another organisation that the Brigade has been working closely with is the NHS. Over 10 per cent of unwanted false alarms come from hospitals. Since 2003, a Concordat agreement, which strengthens the relationship between London Fire Brigade, the Department of Health and NHS London, has been signed and all parties annually re-affirm commitment to the reviewed principals during a workshop event. It outlines how the three organisations will continue to work together to ensure health centres and hospitals comply with fire safety legislation.

The work being carried out by the Brigade has clearly made a difference in reducing the number of unnecessary call outs in London but still much more needs to be done, especially by companies who do not manage their alarm systems successfully enough. The Brigade is committed to protecting its valuable resources so it can better serve Londoners in real emergencies. While we will always come to a fire or suspected fire, we do not want to attend false alarms that can reasonably be prevented.