03 Mar Putting lives at risk
False fire alarms can cost companies money in both operation and reputation, as well as putting lives at risk. Sasi Kumar, Commercial Manager Middle East and Africa, Advanced explains.
False fire alarms are a global problem. In the UK alone, they cost more than 1 billion pounds a year. But the costs aren’t simply financial, repeated false alarms make people complacent and less likely to take action in real fire situations. They cause disruption to businesses, annoyance to customers, and repeated false alarms can damage a company’s reputation and may also divert fire and rescue teams away from real emergencies putting lives at risk.
In hotels, the causes of false and unwanted fire alarms can include cigarette smoke, shower steam, the accidental triggering of manual call points, and even contractor activity. Against a backdrop of these and many other possible triggers, how do hotels minimise fire risk, ensure staff and guest safety, avoid undue panic and disruption, whilst also limiting damage to profits and reputation?
The first step to help avoid false alarms is to ensure detectors and fire panels are installed correctly. Generally smoke detectors should not be fitted in kitchens or bathrooms. This is because these environments generate steam and cooking vapours which can be interpreted as smoke by detectors. In a kitchen, a heat detector would usually be used instead, while in a bathroom an alarm wouldn’t be used.
However, when it comes to hotels, this can be a problem since an alarm is required for each bedroom, but often bedrooms have an en-suite bathroom next door. Many of us have experienced night-time alarms in hotels where we have been evacuated in our pyjamas because another guest has had a shower or bath and let the steam into the bedroom as soon as they open the bathroom door. Unfortunately, often detectors are installed close to the main door to the corridor to protect guests’ escape routes, which is also usually near the bathroom door making the problem much worse.
Meanwhile, shopping centres and supermarkets are regularly forced to evacuate hundreds of shoppers due to unwanted false alarms. This can lead to shoppers abandoning their shopping on conveyor belts, baskets, and trollies. Owing to the disruption, many choose not to return to complete their purchases.
Supermarkets are complex sites with many different areas, not only the ones that customers can access. Most supermarkets, depending on size, may have offices, warehouses or storerooms, bakeries, staff rooms and toilets too.
Each type of area presents its own unique fire risk which should be considered when designing a fire detection system. Due to the different areas, there are many factors that can trigger false alarms in supermarkets, but one we come across quite regularly occurs when a supermarket has a bakery. In that environment, baking bread and other baked goods requires a hot oven. However, when staff open an oven, a significant amount of heat and steam comes out. Unfortunately, if an optical or heat detector is installed on the ceiling above, this triggers an alarm. To avoid this, some supermarkets turn the fire system off or ignore LED alarms to avoid store evacuations, resulting in a huge risk.
In manufacturing, downtime is the single largest source of lost production. Although downtime can be planned for maintenance or staff shortages, false alarms are an unnecessary cause for production to stop. Downtime reduces profits for companies, and upsets customers and partners if schedules are missed which can lead to lost business. Studies show that workplace accidents increase by 12 times during production start-ups and shutdowns, further highlighting the need to avoid manufacturing downtime.
In manufacturing plants where there are high temperatures, dust or chemicals in the air it is vital to consider very carefully where detectors are placed. But it is also vital not to ignore detector signals. Ongoing false alarms can be very dangerous and lead to people ignoring them. There are instances in some factories where an LED is constantly red, indicating an alarm, but since it is triggered every day employees will ignore it.
As well as costing businesses money, repeated false alarms reduce people’s confidence in fire alarms, contributing to alarm fatigue. Repeated alarms make people complacent when it comes to evacuations. Alarm fatigue can occur when a person becomes desensitised to an alarm due to repeated false alarms and as a result, fails to react appropriately in an emergency – having potentially fatal effects.
So how can we overcome this problem? A first step is to ensure companies employ a trained fire system installer that understands the complexities of fire system design and installation. When a fire system is installed by someone that isn’t qualified, more false alarms will occur as the risks of fires in certain areas of a building won’t be assessed correctly. There is also the risk of detectors being installed in the wrong positions, such as next to an air conditioning unit which will suck up dust and trigger a fire alarm. It is essential that a system is designed correctly so that false alarms can’t be triggered by inappropriate system installation or detectors. Each type of business has its own type of risk and these need to be considered carefully in the design.
The design and planning of effective false alarm management starts with the fire risk assessment and the specification of a fire system that can cope with the demands that will be placed upon it utilising technology which allows total control and configurability of the false alarm strategy across any site.
The fire industry has implemented two different approaches to the false alarm issue, both focusing on signal verification. The first is based around detector technology, which functions by screening false signals in the detector heads themselves. The second focuses on the fire panel, analysing the signals received from sensors and interpreting this information to determine if the fire signal is real and take further action. Many forward-looking manufacturers, including Advanced, are bringing these approaches together to combat false alarms from multiple directions.
The real power of any system comes from combining detector data with an intelligent fire panel. At a basic level, this allows individual detectors to be used in combination or in different modes to help prevent false alarm incidents. For example, multi-sensor detectors can be switched between heat and smoke modes to confirm a signal. Several detectors can also be combined using double-knock or coincidence programming to fulfil the same purpose.
Modern addressable panels are powerful computers dedicated to fire detection and can match detector signals with powerful cause-and-effect programming, bringing a range of verification and investigation delay procedures into play that can significantly reduce false alarms. A well-designed system can achieve much automatically, or with very minimal human input. However, in recent years the involvement of building occupants in certain verification models has been shown to be very effective, and some manufacturers have developed dedicated false alarm input devices to facilitate this.
False alarm management is available as standard on Advanced’s Axis EN, MxPro 5 and Axis AX solutions. AlarmCalm software is used on the EN standard panels to deliver unprecedented control of verification and investigation delays. Advanced provides ultimate flexibility in false alarm management, thanks to its unique use of ‘building areas’ in programming cause and effect, addressing the individual needs of the different buildings and businesses. By dividing sites up into virtual false alarm ‘building areas’ independent of fire zones, users gain more precise control of false alarm management and reduction strategies that exactly fit the needs of each part of a building. Virtual building areas can cover multiple zones and points, partial zones or even single detectors for precise application of false alarm strategies based on false alarm risk per area.
To overcome false alarms, the software comes with both an alarm verification and an alarm investigation option. Firstly, the alarm verification is used to automatically check if an activation device is genuine before a fire condition is displayed on the panel. This is ideal for when the designated responsible person is not always available on site. Here the system will work independently and can verify the alarm without human input. The system is flexible, accommodating many timing options and scenarios. This reduces false alarms since the verification delays check whether there is genuine reason for the alarm to activate before the signal is latched onto the fire panel.
Investigation delays can be used to allow the occupant to physically check if an activated device is genuine after a fire condition is displayed on the panel. This option is ideal when there is a responsible person on site. Human input brings certainty in identifying the cause of the alarm.
Any false alarms that do occur when using AlarmCalm are not ignored, they are recorded in the event log. This means that recurring false alarms can be investigated to solve the problem.
So, businesses no longer need to suffer repeated false alarms which damage their reputation and have cost implications. By opting for an intelligent fire panel with an inbuilt false alarm management system, we can finally calm alarm fatigue.