Unwanted Fire Signals

Unwanted Fire Signals

Automatic Fire Alarm Systems provide an early warning of fire and are one of the most effective ways to keep your business, staff and customers safe in the event of a fire.

Unfortunately, most signals from these systems are not actual fires, they are false alarms often caused by cooking fumes, dust, smoking/vaping or a lack of maintenance. These unwanted fire signals mean our firefighters are called out unnecessarily and means that they're tied up and unavailable to respond to real emergencies.

While we fully support the installation of automatic fire alarm systems, these systems must be fully managed and maintained to reduce false alarms and ensure that they activate at the right time and achieve the correct response.

The impact of unwanted fire signals;

The Business

  • Lost production time while the premises are evacuated.
  • Occupant complacency can occur if there are frequent false alarms. Therefore, persons within the building are less likely to react as quickly as they should to a fire alarm, creating more risk to individuals.

Wider Community

  • Environmental damage due to unnecessary appliance movements. Depending on the property type and our pre-determined attendance (established through the level of risk), five appliances could be mobilised to a single UwFS. Beyond that, in order to maintain our attendance time requirements, other appliances are mobilised to strategic positions around Essex so that, in the event of another incident, ECFRS are able to attend as quickly as possible.
  • Every year there are hundreds of blue light movements that were not required. This puts firefighters, other road users and pedestrians at increased risk.
  • While in attendance at UwFS, ECFRS appliances are unavailable to attend genuine incidents.
  • It is estimated that the total cost of false alarms to UK businesses is over £1 billion a year as well as disruption to workforce, customers, productivity and reputation.

Impact on our fire service

  • There is a huge cost in resourcing fire services to cope with the high demand from UwFS while maintaining sufficient availability to attend genuine emergencies
  • Our firefighters spend time in the community proactively reducing the risk of fires occurring in both businesses and private homes. UwFS interrupt these essential activities from happening.
  • Operational crews miss valuable training time when attending these types of incidents.
  • A large part of our work is about keeping firefighters safe. To assist in this, operational crews carry out information gathering visits to businesses across Essex to help us deal with individual incidents safely and efficiently. UwFS create a barrier to this through creating missed appointments.

As a business owner or manager, you have a responsibility to maintain the fire alarm facilities and equipment. Failure to reduce your false alarms may result in legal enforcement action.

Video: Reducing false alarms in the workplace

There is a false alarm in the UK every two minutes. The National Fire Chiefs Council have produced this video to tell you how they most commonly happen and what you can do to reduce them.

Does your business experience re-occuring unwanted fire signals?

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service's Business Engagement Team is available to provide support, advice and guidance to any Essex business experiencing recurrent false alarms.

Please email: business.safety@essex-fire.gov.uk

More information

Causes of false alarms

There are a number of common causes of unwanted fire signals. The table below offers advice and solutions on how to reduce them.

  • Cooking fumes - ensure that cooking is only permitted in designated locations which have appropriate detection (usually heat). Correct use of extractor fans and the closing of doors between designated cooking areas and detector heads can further prevent false alarms.
  • Steam (i.e. from shower rooms) - Ensure there is adequate ventilation in the shower room and keep doors to outer rooms closed. Sometimes signage can help guests/staff understand the need to close doors and take action to avoid build-up of excessive steam.
  • Smoking - Smoking should only be allowed in designated locations protected by appropriate detectors, i.e. which are designed to be suitable for the risk whilst not being susceptible to actuation from cigarette smoke.
  • Contractors working onsite - Contractors should be fully briefed on your fire safety arrangements, the location of fire detection systems, and the emergency plan applicable to their working location.Temporary covers could be fitted to detectors in the area, or the zone isolated from the fire alarm system during the work period and control measures introduced. These measures should be removed immediately after the activity has ended. Whilst detectors are covered in this way, staff working in the area (including contractors) should be briefed to activate a 'break glass' call point if they see a fire.
  • Testing or maintenance - Prior to commencing any testing or maintenance you must instruct your alarm centre to take your system 'off watch' for the duration of the activity.

How to reduce false alarms

If these actuations continue to occur despite suitable management procedures being put in place, then it may be beneficial to contact your fire alarm engineer.  They will be able to consider alternatives, such as:

  • The location and type of detectors could be assessed and altered (including sensitivity settings) where necessary to reduce the number of UwFS but still provide suitable and appropriate protection.
  • The use of an investigation period being afforded by the alarm system before the alarm signal is sent to the alarm receiving centre (ARC) will allow for a suitable investigation and, if it is found to be a false alarm, the system can be reset before the signal is sent to the ARC.
  • The implementation of a coincidence detection system. This is where two detecting devices need to be activated before an alarm signal is sent to an ARC (this can be overridden by the operation of a manual call point or a heat-activated device, such as a heat detector or a sprinkler system).
  • In certain premises the alarm system could be taken ‘off line’ during the day when the sleeping risk is reduced and there are enough staff to manage a fire alarm actuation (including a robust system for summoning the fire service when required).

In all cases a risk assessment will need to be undertaken to ensure the safety of relevant persons. It is important to note that only competent or qualified persons should operate your fire alarm system, in accordance with BS 5839.

Your duty

You have a duty to maintain your fire alarm system up to the required standard. However, if your fire alarm generates an unacceptably high rate of false alarms and they are not investigated or measures taken to reduce re-occurrence, your fire alarm may be regarded as non-compliant.

Your premises should have a suitable system implemented for recording and investigating false alarms and UwFS.  The type of information that may be useful in identifying the cause of a false alarm or UwFS are:

  1. Date and time
  2. Identity and location of device (if known)
  3. Reason for false alarm (if known)
  4. Activity in the area at time of actuation
  5. Action taken on the cause of the false alarm

There should be a suitable investigation following every false alarm and appropriate measures taken to reduce reoccurrence. 

Our policy

When an Automatic Fire Alarm (AFA) actuates for any reason other than a fire, this is referred to as a false alarm. The point at which the fire service is requested and responds to a false alarm is referred to as an Unwanted Fire Signal (UwFS).

ECFRS will not provide an emergency response to fire calls generated by AFA systems unless;

  • A call is received via 999 confirming a fire or physical signs of fire at the premises in question
  • The building has been granted exemption
Incident/False Alarm data 2023
Total incidents
Total incidents at commercial buildings
Total False Alarms from commercial buildings
Percentage of false alarms at commercial buildings

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