False fire alarms in a commercial setting can be a mild annoyance, or it can be detrimental, depending on what is going on within the building. For an office building, a false fire alarm is certainly annoying; the entire staff is disrupted for a meaningless evacuation, and during that time period, productivity is at a standstill. But consider a false fire alarm at 2:45am at a hotel, or worse, a hospital. There are times when a false alarm doesn’t just slow productivity, but is actually harmful to the occupants it’s meant to protect.
In terms of potential risks to occupants, false fire alarms are a big one for residential buildings. If you happen to live in an apartment complex that has had many false fire alarms, you’re likely to take each one less and less seriously, and this could lead to a slow response or no response at all to a real fire alarm.
Nobody likes false fire alarms, but there’s another entity that suffers from them as well: the fire department. If your building’s addressable fire alarm system is set to notify emergency responders (as it should), then a false fire alarm will needlessly consume valuable resources from your local fire department. This is important because most fire departments in the U.S. are already low on resources and many have endured additional financial cutbacks in the last 5 to 7 years.
For all of these reasons, eliminating (or at least reducing) false fire alarms is a priority for most facilities.
Possible Causes of a False Fire Alarm
The best way to ascertain the prevention of an act or event is to know, understand, and analyze the possible causes.
Incorrect Fire Detection Devices
You’re probably wondering how a fire detection device could be “incorrect”, but what’s meant is that some fire detection devices are not meant for certain environments, and vice versa. There are a multitude of different fire detection devices; some detect heat, some detect smoke, some detect UV rays from flames, some detect certain types of gases, and many devices detect one or more things to determine if what it’s detecting is actually a fire or not! The type of fire detection device, as well as its location within a room or structure, can lead to recurring false alarms.
The point is, there are many different fire detection devices because there are many different environments to consider. For example, most commercial smoke detection devices use infrared light to detect smoke, but that means that anytime the infrared light detects a buildup of particulate matter in the air, or if there happens to be larger particles in the air that the infrared light detects, then you’ve got yourself a false alarm pretty quickly. An infrared light can’t know the difference between smoke, and something harmless that refracts light in a fashion similar to smoke, such as steam from a hot shower, or stirred up sawdust from a manufacturing facility.
This means that you should always choose and instal fire detection devices that are a fit for the room they’re located in, be mindful of their location within the room as well as within the building. There’s rarely a ‘one size fits all’ solution, but a fire safety system designer can definitely optimize your system and minimize your false alarms.
Malfunctioning Fire Detection Devices
It goes without saying that this is always a possibility, but with regular maintenance, testing, and inspection of a building’s fire safety systems, this should be a rare occurrence. In the event that you do have a rogue fire detection device, it should be easy to find and replace the offending unit, especially if your building utilizes an addressable fire alarm system, which has a panel that can give you the exact location of each device and its current status.
Poor Fire Alarm System Design
Does your facility have multiple buildings? Does each building have multiple floors? Facilities like these should be have a facility-wide fully-integrated fire safety system that divides the facility into multiple separate ‘zones’. If a smoke alarm is set off in building A, there’s simply no reason for fire alarms to be alarming across the entire facility. In some facilities, the outermost two buildings are nearly a half-mile apart!
Even with correct and fully-functional fire detection devices in every room of every building, a facility this large will have some legitimate smoke from time to time. If an employee burns popcorn on the 4th floor of building A, your fire safety system designer should ensure that no alarms are going off in other areas unless it’s warranted. Even though there may have been a legitimate smoke detection on the 4th floor of building A, that’s the same thing as a false alarm for buildings B, C, and D.
There’s no way around it; if your facility has manual fire alarms that can be activated by pulling a lever, it’s almost inevitable at some point! The facilities most prone to these “prank” fire alarm pulls are schools, hotels, and college dormitories, for obvious reasons, but there are clever ways to minimize and mitigate them.
For starters, you could make sure you have a security camera in any hallway that has a manually activated fire alarm. Not only might it be a deterrent, but you can also use it for the purpose of identifying the culprit. In schools especially, it may be useful to put up a sign that calls attention to the camera and advises an automatic punishment for students who activate it as a prank.
But sometimes, a better alternative is to have an integrated system that is smart enough to detect a potential prank by knowing the location of the manual alarm, and going through a quick and automatic protocol of verifications. Does the manual alarm in question have any nearby fire detection devices? Are any of them non-responsive to system pings? If yes, sound the alarm. Are there any cameras nearby? If yes, use security video analytics to begin real-time monitoring of light peaks (to detect flame) and visual obstruction (to detect smoke), or even thermal imaging (to detect heat), and if any of those systems have detection, then allow the system to go ahead and alarm the entire floor or building.
Truly, the best option might just be to consider the placement of manually activated fire alarms with pranksters in mind, and put them mostly in areas occupied by adult employees.
Eliminating or Reducing False Fire Alarms
Choose the Correct Fire Detection Devices for Each Area
You don’t put a smoke detector in a kitchen, and you don’t put a heat detector above a furnace, but there are many more considerations to make depending on your facility and the goings on within it. All the different types of fire detection devices have their own sets of pros, cons, skills, and abilities, and it’s up to you and your certified fire safety system designer to choose correctly.
Perform Regular Routine Maintenance, Inspections, and Testing
Every system is susceptible to malfunctioning equipment, but you don’t want it to be a surprise if possible. With regular systems maintenance, inspection, and testing, you should know about a malfunctioning device before it creates any headaches for you or the occupants of your building/facility.
Ensure Proper System Design and Setup
Work closely with a professional NICET-certified life safety system design engineer to design and build a system that makes the most sense for every part of your facility, and everything that happens within it.
Mitigate Opportunities for Prank Alarm Activations
By keeping manually-activated fire alarms restricted or closely monitored with a variety of additional fire detection devices, you can ensure the false alarm disturbs as few occupants as possible.
In closing, it’s plain to see that fire detection devices, alarm systems, and other fire safety systems and equipment are positively crucial, but dealing with false fire alarms and the repercussions they bring isn’t a standard component of a fire safety system, and is, in fact, totally counterproductive. Use these steps to fight back against false fire alarms, and feel free to reach out to us for a free quote.