There has been discussion about unwanted alarms in the last few years. The fire service says this is “an industry problem,” but is it? What can be done to improve the reliability of fire alarm systems so people stop ignoring alarms when they activate?
The majority of alarms are not the result of a fire, and there are many causes of unwanted alarms. It may be that smoke detectors are not installed properly or the wrong type is used for the application. It may be manual stations being actuated maliciously. It may be water flow switches not adjusted with enough delay to counteract water surges. It may be the result of maintenance activities in the area of smoke detectors. It may be due to owners not having their fire alarm systems tested and maintained properly.
There are many possible reasons. As professionals, we should be doing everything we can to make our fire alarm systems more reliable.
There are still too many underqualified individuals designing systems. Often, engineers design fire alarms but, due to lack of experience, pass on the design responsibility to the contractor installing the system. Technically, “design” is an engineering function, and unless the contractor is also a licensed engineer, it is usually illegal for them to perform design, yet it happens all the time.
Contractors should report unqualified designers to their state’s engineering boards. In some states, contractors can design the systems they are going to install themselves. In others, being NICET III certified enables an individual to design a fire alarm system. Although this is a continuing problem, I don’t believe it contributes to the majority of unwanted alarms.
Often, the low bidder installs a fire alarm, but they are not necessarily the most qualified. Systems installed improperly can certainly contribute to an increase in unwanted alarms. Installing smoke detectors near air diffusers or in environments that may contain elements within the response parameters of the detector—for example, in break rooms, near bathrooms with showers, in areas with gusty airflows, in garages, etc.—can increase the likelihood of unwanted alarms. We need to promote more local requirements for certification.
Underqualified inspection and testing personnel can also contribute to an increase in nuisance alarms. If these inspectors are unable to identify potential problem areas, the unwanted alarms continue. NICET now has a new Inspection and Testing of Fire Alarm Systems certification to give inspectors the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of inspections and testing.
Lack of enforcement by fire department personnel can also contribute to the problem. Contractors have no enforcement authority to make owners fix faulty systems, and if fire department inspectors don’t enforce repairs, problems do not always get fixed in a timely manner. I am amazed how many times I hear fire inspectors complain about problem systems, yet they don’t enforce the codes to compel the owner to fix the systems.
Although we need improvements in all of these areas, it is time owners start taking more responsibility to ensure their life safety systems are in good working order. According to NFPA 72, owners are responsible for maintaining their systems. They may or may not be able to perform any work themselves, and in most cases, they are probably not qualified; however, they are still accountable. If only we could get insurance companies to require proof of inspection and testing before renewing insurance policies.
Owners hire low bidders because they feel they can pass liability on to that contractor. However, the owners are still responsible. When you install a fire alarm system, plan to provide some training to your customer’s staff, so they better understand the importance of fire alarm systems. It can have a significant effect on reducing unwanted alarms.
The bottom line is that we have unwanted alarms, and we will continue to have unwanted alarms, until everyone involved steps up. Apathy is not acceptable when we are dealing with life safety systems. Unwanted alarms contribute to increased trade-offs in the codes where fire sprinkler systems can negate the need for fire alarm equipment. While that may be what is in the codes, it is not always the best plan for fire protection.
So, starting this year, if you have not already done so, plan to improve your staff and customer training. Use your leadership to raise the bar for life safety, and let’s save more lives.