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Fire alarms and the localism bill

Government legislation could see companies fined for false fire
alarms by individual fire services. Martin Watson discusses the implications for FMs


10 November 2011


The laws outlined in the Localism Bill currently going through parliament mean that individual fire services throughout the UK will be able to charge per false fire alarm. When the bill is passed, fire and rescue authorities in England or Wales will be able to charge for the time they spend responding to false alarms from commercial buildings. Plenty of countries in Europe have already enforced a similar strategy, with England and Wales relatively late in bringing in this new legislation.

A false report can be made by an employee, or from malfunctioning or incorrectly installed fire detection equipment. If a fire and rescue authority decides to charge for taking action as a result of a false alarm, the amount charged is set by the local authority and can vary depending on circumstances. All local authorities within England and Wales will have the authority
to enforce a charging system
for unnecessary call-outs.

The fire and rescue authority can only charge up to the costs incurred – they cannot make profit through charges. However, taking into account the costs associated with sending out two fire engines and two teams of firefighters, plus their specialist equipment, this could be a considerable amount. Some brigades are against charging, as this could result in companies becoming reluctant to call the fire service. Therefore, although the general consensus is that authorities should enforce charges, some may decide not to.

The amount charged is set by each local authority, not nationally, and will be different depending
on circumstances.

Where there’s smoke...
The Localism Bill is going through parliament now. However the clauses which refer to fire and rescue authority charging are currently being updated. The changes to fire and rescue authority charging are likely to come into play next year, although it’s important that facilities managers take action now both to be compliant with new legislation and avoid prosecution under the existing Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order 2005 RR(FS)O. This Order came into force in 2006 and is already used by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) to keep false alarm levels down by threatening and enforcing prosecution. The CFOA is aiming for a policy of zero tolerance on false alarms.

Switching off or removing detectors can seem like a simple solution for organisations trying
to avoid false alarms. However, the stark reality of the damage caused by a major fire shows this is a short-term and flawed approach. 70 per cent of businesses go into liquidation within three years of having a major fire. In addition, ‘alarm apathy’ can set in when a site has repeated false alarms. Ultimately, this could put lives at risk in the most serious of circumstances.

False alarms
To overcome the issue of false alarms, organisations should ensure they have the optimum number of detectors and ensure that those detectors are robust and individually programmed to suit their specific environment. The main issue with smoke detectors is that many are unable to detect between expected fire phenomena (for example; smoke) and deceptive phenomena (such as steam) leading to false alarms. Fire detectors that use advanced signal analysis (ASA) detection technology allow optimal protection across every application and organisations should seek to utilise this unique technology in their fire safety systems.

ASA technology records signals (for example; smoke) and compares them with pre-programmed parameter sets. This means that the system is able to analyse the stimuli it is confronted with and identify it as being either expected fire phenomena such as smoke, or deceptive phenomena such as steam. This ability to modify the threshold levels of the detectors also means the same product can be used throughout a whole building across all applications. From a clean room to industrial production facilities, the system can be tailored to best suit the environment in which it is placed, so it is able to both protect fully, but also minimise the disruption caused by false alarms.

A burning issue
The impact of a false alarm should not be underestimated. In certain environments, the cost and disruption can be significant: hospitals, schools and shopping centres can take several hours to recover, while industrial environments are also hard hit – a production line not only loses money during the time it is inert, but can take days to be re-started as the entire area may need sanitising and safety checks before production can re-start. In research environments the impact on data integrity can be catastrophic. The environmental impact can also be underestimated. Many buildings have systems where equipment is shutdown automatically or fans turned on/off when triggered by alarms. Unnecessary energy is used by equipment and machinery having to reboot and get back up to full operating speed.

The bottom line

At a time when the focus is on cutting costs and the bottom line across private and public sectors, organisations should not miss the opportunities offered simply by effectively reducing their false alarms on site.


Martin Watson is business unit head for UK Fire Safety within the Siemens Building Technologies division