Reduce your false alarms

Fire safety might seem like a basic topic to the initiated, but it is actually incredibly important to get it right. For some difficult buildings, such as hospitals, this can be a challenge says Will Lloyd of the Fire Industry Association

Fire safety legislation in the UK places the responsibility of ensuring the people within the premises are safe from fire. There are various fire safety laws that vary slightly depending on location, but they all ostensibly say the same thing. For the sake of accuracy and preventing any confusion, here is the full list: Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – applicable in England and Wales; Fire (Scotland) Act 2005; Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006; The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006; and The Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010.

Each piece of legislation refers to the ‘responsible person’, ‘appropriate person’, or ‘duty holder’. All these terms are different depending on what piece of legislation you are reading, but they all mean the same thing: the responsible person is the person who will oversee all the fire safety and fire prevention strategies for the building and be liable should there be a failure to comply with the law, or if there is a fire. That person is usually the employer or building owner. In the case of a hospital, this is whoever has the highest responsibility and ownership over the hospital.

Whilst protecting the hospital and the persons within with appropriate fire protection is vastly important, it is also vital to maintain a close watch on false alarms, as these can have a detrimental effect in many ways – taking staff away from patients and causing unnecessary hassle whilst the alarm is switched off.

The problem is usually made worse with the installation of automatic fire detection systems, which will automatically call the fire brigade out to the site in the instance of the alarm being activated (whether this is through the detectors activating or whether someone presses the manual call point button to activate the alarm).

Recent government statistics have revealed that as much as 40 per cent of Fire and Rescue Service callouts are false alarms which create unwanted fire signals, so it really is imperative that everyone with responsibility for a building makes the necessary changes to manage their own systems more effectively to prevent further detriment on time and resources to an already stretched Fire and Rescue Service.

Automatic fire alarm
The false alarms problem is further compounded by the absence of a single automatic fire alarm (AFA) Fire & Rescue Service attendance policy in England. Some Fire and Rescue services will attend AFA incidents, whereas others may not – or there could potentially be a charge for unwanted fire signal callouts after the Localism Bill of 2011. This lack of consistency makes it difficult for both end users and fire alarm maintenance companies; whereas in Scotland there is one policy and this has been further reinforced by the setting up of a single fire service.

With that in mind, the ‘responsible person’ should make an active effort to stay abreast of all the major changes within the realm of fire safety (e.g. changes in the law or other guidance issued) and take appropriate action. There are a number of different pieces of guidance available to hospitals, particularly on the topic of false alarms.

The UK’s largest not-for-profit trade association for fire protection, the Fire Industry Association (FIA), has a dedicated section on its website for cutting false alarms and unwanted fire signals, as well as resources to help manage the fire protection of the building as a whole, covering a wide range of information – from fire risk assessment and management, to alarm testing and maintenance, as well as portable fire extinguishers (and more).

However, one of the key areas that the FIA does is fund vital research into fire protection methods, products, and false alarm prevention. This research is then used as a basis to create further guidance on the subject of fire protection.

Live investigations of false fire alarms
One of the most recent advances in this area is in false alarm reduction. The FIA, along with other stakeholders, helped fund a research project conducted by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) back in 2014-2015 called ‘Live investigations of false fire alarms’, which was an investigation into the causes of false alarms at a range of different locations – including hospitals.

The investigators noted down the different causes of false alarms and the frequency of these events between December 2014 to March 2015. Whilst many of these events were caused by simple human mistakes such as burning toast, cooking, or smoking, a surprising amount came from accidental activation of the alarm system.

In the incidents of false alarms by accidental activation, the report highlighted that in premises such as hospitals, incidents were commonly triggered by trollies striking the side of a manual call point. In a busy hospital environment, this can all too easily be done but the research recommended that protective covers be fitted to prevent false alarms in these cases.

The research recommendation was so strong that the FIA then used the research to change the British Standards (codes and guidelines that are best practice and should ideally be adhered to) to include getting covers fitted on manual call points as standard.

Therefore, if false alarms are an issue – it could potentially be down to accidental activation in this manner. As such, having covers fitted may be a useful step towards reducing false alarms. This should also prevent people mistaking the manual call point for the door release button (surprisingly, this is a common error, since the two are often installed next to each other by the door; we recommend correct signage to help with this issue as well as installing covers).

The change to the British Standards only officially rolled out this September, so now is the perfect opportunity to reassess the fire protection within your building and see if it needs updating to be more in line with the new guidelines. However, you don’t have to be an expert in the British Standards yourself to know what changes to make to reduce false alarms – you can speak to a professional.

The FIA is comprised of over 700 member companies who have been independently audited and checked to assess their quality and professionalism. This is known as Third Party Certification. Companies that have been certificated in this manner have undertaken rigorous checks to ensure that they are able to work on life safety systems such as fire detection and alarm systems safely. Third Party Certification also applies to a range of other fire safety services, such as portable fire extinguisher installation and maintenance, fire extinguishing system design, installation, maintenance, and commissioning, as well as to companies that perform and manage fire risk assessment.

The FIA undertakes rigorous checks to ensure that only those with Third Party Certification can join and become members of the Association. These member companies will be able to give you a professional service and will be able to advise you on the best action to take. A full list can be found on the FIA’s website under the ‘Find a Member’ section, where you can search the list by location and by service, to quickly locate the service you need.

The website also has a section under the ‘Resources’ tab labelled as ‘Fire Safety Advice’. Head to this section of the website to learn about fire safety legislation, fire risk assessment, and further advice on how to reduce false alarms. The information is designed to help you (if you are the responsible person) to understand your responsibilities and what actions you should take in order to protect your building.

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