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Common causes of false fire alarms

In this article we review some of the most common causes of false fire alarms and how to avoid them. It covers:

  1. What is a false fire alarm
  2. Common causes of false fire alarms
  3. Explanation of the various types of fire detectors
  4. Selecting equipment that is fit for purpose
  5. Maintenance guidelines
  6. Training and educating users
  7. Recent statistics and affect on the response from fire and rescue services

What is a false fire alarm?

There is a common misconception between what is classed as a ‘false’ fire alarm and an ‘unwanted’ fire alarm activation, so firstly, we need to differentiate between ‘false’ fire alarms and an ‘unwanted’ fire alarm.

An alarm that sounds because a toaster has activated a smoke detector is an unwanted alarm. This is because the alarm has done its job. It has genuinely detected smoke and has activated to warn that there may be a fire. A false fire alarm is where no explanation can be given as too why the detector has activated, requiring further investigation by the fire alarm maintenance company.

A smoke detector which activates when there is no fire is at best likely to cause an annoying unwanted fire alarm activation. At worst such a malfunction could cause significant disruption to employees, visitors and members of the public. Overall, a smoke detector alarming repeatedly when there is no fire will make people lose confidence and could compromise health and safety.

Common causes of false fire alarms

In 2014, The Building Research Establishment (BRE) conducted a research exercise into the causes of false fire alarms. They listed over 30 common causes, which can be grouped further under the following key headings:

  • Manual Call Point (MCP) accidentally activated
  • Poor maintenance, outdated equipment and faults
  • Detectors triggered due to exposure to cooking, water, steam, dust, insects

In the majority of the above cases, the following changes helped to remedy the number and occurrence of false alarms.

Types of fire detection device

The single most effective method to avoiding such instances is to choose the type and location of the detection device carefully and with expert assistance.

Multi-sensor detectors have the added advantages of providing greater confidence of a fire condition by detecting more than one fire signature and increasing sensitivity levels when more than one fire signature is present which ensures a quicker alarm response. Whilst it can be expensive to replace all detectors, it can be very cost-effective to replace those in problems areas.

When replacing detectors, consideration should also be given to the best location considering local (potentially changing) false alarm sources.

Covered Manual Call Points (MCP)

Sometimes the MCP can be mistaken for the building exit button, and sometimes pranksters think activating a fire alarm is a fun thing to do.  Malicious or accidental triggering of the fire alarm can be remedied by fitting covers to the MCP’s. Lifting the cover causes the user to focus more on what they are doing and helps to draw their attention to the fact that they are about to lift the cover on a fire alarm activation point.

Fire equipment choice and maintenance

Selecting fire alarm equipment that is fit for purpose in relation to the location within the premises it is intended to protect is a vital first step. Once installed, regular fire alarm maintenance is key and will help to reduce false fire alarms because the equipment will be cleaned and checked to identify potential problems, and defective parts can be replaced before they cause an unwanted activation.

The use of an of EN 54-2 approved analogue addressable control panel will also help, as it will perform three principal functions:

  • Automatic monitoring and control of circuits external to the equipment, such as fire detection and fire alarm device circuits and supply of power to these circuits
  • Indication of fire signals, fault signals and their location
  • Manual control to facilitate actions such as testing, disablement of devices, triggering of fire signals, silencing of audible fire warnings and resetting the system after a fire signal

It is important to always record the time and date as well as the location, zone and devices that have activated as this valuable information helps to identify trends and further reduce false alarms. This is very valuable information for your maintenance engineer as it will help direct his investigation into the exact cause.

Fire safety training and education

Assuming that the appropriate equipment has been chosen and detectors are installed in the right places, there is no doubt that fire safety training and education helps to reduce false fire alarms. Whether these be formal training sessions or educative notices, ensuring building occupants have knowledge of the kind of activities that will cause a false alarm will play a vital part in reducing the number of false alarms you experience.

False Fire Alarm Statistics

The Home Office collects detailed information on incidents attended by the Fire and Rescue Services which are published on the www.gov.uk website. This includes the common causes of false fire alarms.

One of the statistics that Tecserv UK is particularly interested in are the statistics related to call outs that end up being classified as false alarm activations.

When trying to analyse reasons for false fire alarms, the data we have reviewed are the records that reached the Incident Record System (IRS) by 20 December 2020.

Fire and rescue services (FRS) attended 528,601 incidents in the year ending December 2020. This was a five per cent decrease compared with the previous year (557,073). Of these incidents, there were 153,278 fires. This was a three per cent decrease compared with the previous year (157,563).

In the year ending December 2020:

FRSs attended 220,432 fire false alarms, a four per cent decrease compared with the previous year (230,271), a two per cent increase compared with five years ago (215,873) and a 23 per cent decrease compared with ten years ago (285,368).

Fire false alarms are broadly categorised by motive into ‘due to apparatus’, ‘good intent’ and ‘malicious’. In the year ending December 2020 there were:

  • 143,683 fire false alarms due to apparatus: a seven per cent decrease from the previous year (155,269), similar to five years previously (143,722) but a 26 per cent decrease from ten years previously (194,002);
  • 71,468 fire false alarms due to good intent: an increase of five per cent from the previous year (68,298), an increase of nine per cent from five years previously (65,340) and a decrease of nine per cent from ten years previously (78,961); and
  • 5,281 malicious fire false alarms: decreases of 21 per cent from the previous year (6,704), 22 per cent from five years previously (6,811) and 57 per cent from ten years previously (12,405). (Source: FIRE0104)

Whilst these statistics relate to ‘all’ fire call outs, which will include both domestic and commercial premises, there is a great deal of cost, not to mention the inconvenience and reputational damage associated with a false fire alarm call out. In addition, repeated fire service call-outs could affect the response you receive from the emergency services to an alarm activation.

Affect on fire & rescue service response

It has always been the case that the emergency services will downgrade their response to a fire alarm call out to businesses where it has repeatedly attended automatic fire alarm calls where the call out has turned out to be an unwanted fire alarm signal (UwFS).

However, more recently, a number of Fire & Rescue Services have amended their Policy and Procedures for dealing with automatic fire alarm calls (AFA) and it is likely that other Fire & Rescue Services across the UK already have, or will make, similar changes, such that fire crews will not respond to any automatic fire alarm calls (AFAs) at the majority of business premises (including schools) unless a caller at the building reasonably believes that there is a fire.

The change means that a ‘999’ call will need to be made from someone at the premises, who reasonably believes that a fire has broken out. Only then will fire engines respond

Through education and ensuring our clients commercial fire alarm systems are well maintained, Tecserv UK goes to great pains to prevent our clients from experiencing unwanted fire alarm activations. We also regularly publish advice and tips to help prevent false fire alarm activations.

The full set of fire statistics releases, tables and guidance can be found on the gov.uk website.

If you would like to discuss how Tecserv UK can help your business avoid unwanted fire alarm activations, please get in touch.

Colin Milligan

Colin joined Tecserv UK Ltd in 2010. He has been in the fire and security industry for 30 years + and in that time has held a number of senior positions. His experience helps to bring focus and growth to our sales and marketing strategy by being objective driven and KPI measured.

Posted on: 23 May 2018
Last updated: 26 October 2021
Posted in: Advice, News
Author: Colin Milligan