October 09, 2019

School alarm issues all too familiar

The experience of Cashmere High highlights the high stakes and contrasting incentives we found during research into false fire alarms in New Zealand.

It is distressing to read in the news about Cashmere High School left without a functioning fire alarm system due to the actions of contractors. Unfortunately much of the story is familiar and predictable, given our research into fire alarms completed earlier this year for Fire and Emergency New Zealand. 

During the course of our work we identified a key factor in the proper functioning of any alarm system was the quality of the installation. Media reporting clearly identifies that the poor installation at Cashmere High resulted in numerous false alarms and system faults. 

The Ministry of Education requires that all schools be protected with the more modern Analogue Addressable Alarm System. When properly laid out and installed this type of system is efficient at avoiding false activations. However a poor installation of even the best equipment leads to false signals which sound the alarm. When this happens classes are interrupted, everyone has to evacuate, and Fire and Emergency undertake an emergency response.

Once false alarms start to become a regular occurrence things can get dangerous

If it happens once it’s an inconvenience, maybe an amusement to the students. Once it starts to become a regular occurrence things can get dangerous. The students, their teachers and even the fire crews ‘learn’ that an alarm activation at this school is not a real emergency. Evacuations become slower, if happens often enough people will not bother at all and remain indoors. Once this culture of complacency has begun it can be difficult to shift. In the event of an actual fire a tragic outcome is then much more likely.

It appears this is what was occurring at Cashmere High, to the point where Fire and Emergency wrote to the school about the unacceptable number of callouts.  Naturally the contractor was asked to resolve the issues with the alarm, and prevent further false alarms. The contractor is alleged to have dealt with the problem not by fixing the issues, but by effectively turning the alarm system off for the affected areas.

While qualifications for alarm installers exist, there is no requirement for contractors to hold these qualifications

This real life example relates to the findings in our report around the incentives for contractors working on alarm systems, training and staff turnover, and their qualifications. While qualifications for alarm installers exist, there is no requirement for contractors to hold these qualifications. New systems must undergo commissioning and acceptance testing by appropriately qualified third party certifiers, but there are no routine or surprise checks to ensure that software settings haven’t been changed at a later time.

Among BERL’s recommendations, we recommended independent auditing of the software settings and wiring of alarm systems post commissioning. This is effectively what happened at Cashmere High, but only after the problem was discovered, and parts of the school had been unprotected by any fire detection system for an unknown period, possibly months.

To find out more read our release True cost of “false” alarms or the full BERL report.