Reading time
6 mins
July 12, 2019
Merewyn Groom

True costs of “false” alarms

Unwanted fire alarms are costing NZ businesses and Fire and Emergency, and could have implications for life safety

Research commissioned by Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fire and Emergency) delved into the costs of unwanted fire alarms. The brief was to quantify the economic costs not only to our fire rescue service, but to New Zealand businesses, institutions and society. What might seem like a dry and unimportant subject was revealed to be a large and surprisingly complex subject, containing at times perverse and contradictory incentives.

Most people call them false alarms, but from the perspective of the fire crews, when the alarm goes off they must assume each call is a genuine emergency. Only once they arrive and confirm there is no fire or other problem can they relax. For this reason they are referred to as “unwanted alarms”, there being no such thing as a false alarm.

An incident is considered unwanted if the alarm was triggered in the absence of an emergency. Usually the alarm comes from an automatic alarm system, often the result of burnt toast or dust from construction work. Calls to 111, and events where the alarm system is intentionally activated by a malicious person are also included.

Having your work day or night’s sleep interrupted and being evacuated into the street is a hassle and an inconvenience. For some businesses such as manufacturers the interruption can be significant, and in a hospital it can become a life threatening situation. 

Property use group of the location of unwanted fire alarms as recorded by Fire and Emergency personnel.

Our recent work for Fire and Emergency has identified several opportunities for practice change, from the adoption of new technologies to transmit rich information from alarm systems, to tackling issues of competing incentives among stakeholders which are contributing to the problem.

Huge and growing problem

In 2017 Fire and Emergency received 26,458 unwanted alarms, that’s an average of one every 20 minutes, making up over half of all incidents. Fires crews respond under lights and siren, 330 times a day, to find there’s no emergency cause. 

The burden of responding to these alarms is not spread evenly, unwanted alarms occur more frequently in the daytime, and in densely populated areas. At some CBD stations, unwanted alarms are up to 90 percent of all incidents attended.

Over 60 percent of unwanted alarms were activated by an automatic fire alarm, while calls to 111 fell slightly over the last five years.

There are a range of steps which can be taken to reduce both the number of and the effect of unwanted alarms, yet many building owners are unaware or choose not to adopt these. The costs of upgrades can be avoided or delayed, while the cost of experiencing the alarms falls on the building occupants. 

Responsibility must also fall on the alarm system industry as a significant proportion of unwanted alarms are triggered by the maintenance and testing of the alarm systems. Even the best alarm systems still require correct design and installation to perform.

Most are accidental, but this includes those activated by maintenance staff who ought to have procedures to prevent this.

Costs on Fire and Emergency staff

Despite not requiring actual firefighting work, the sheer volume of unwanted alarms mean they contribute significantly to wear and tear of equipment and fuel costs. Staff job satisfaction is adversely affected, and this can lead to complacency – a known risk factor for work place accidents. 
Of Fire and Emergency’s 13,000 firefighters, around 11,000 are volunteers. Many communities across New Zealand are reliant of the goodwill of these people, their families and employers, to give up their time to respond to call outs. It is clear that this goodwill is put at risk by repeated responses to unwanted alarms. 

Lost productivity

Our research aimed to approximate the extent of business interruption as a result of unwanted alarms. Using the Fire and Emergency database an estimated total lost GDP was calculated. While the figure arrived at can only be an estimate it gives an indication of the magnitude of the problem. We estimated that each year this business interruption cost is in the region of $20 million. This does not capture the cost of attending the calls, and flow on effects such as inconveniencing customers, production deadlines missed, and road congestion.

The “cry wolf” effect

The other very real danger which arises from repeated unwanted alarms is the effect described in the fable “The little boy who cried wolf”. As well as people ignoring the alarms or refusing to evacuate, fire safety inspections routinely discover sensors which have been covered to prevent the alarm system from activating. This kind of complacency can have implications for life safety, should a real fire occur people may not get the warning they need to evacuate safely, or may simply ignore it as they assume it is yet another unwanted alarm.

Gaining teeth

Fire and Emergency came into existence in 2017 with new legislation which differs significantly from that which the New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS) operated under. While the NZFS could issue charges of $1000 to repeat offenders, this provision no longer exists. Instead the new Act allows for a system of penalties and offenses, currently being developed by FENZ. Additionally, Fire and Emergency now has a provision in their contracts with the companies which transmits the alarm signals allowing them to terminate the connection of a building which has 6 or more unwanted alarms in a 12 month period. Already this clause has come close to being invoked. One building was forced to invest in solving the problem, whereas they had not been persuaded by the previous system of charges and engagement by their local Fire Risk Management Officer.

Looking ahead

It remains to be seen what the new penalties and offenses will be, how they are used and how effective they can be used to incentivise building owners to choose quality alarms and keep them well maintained. 

There are several other avenues to reduce the number of unwanted alarms but it will require a proactive approach. This report is a clear start, it identifies the scope of the issue and shows that the problem is increasing even as the alarm technologies available are improving. That Fire and Emergency have yet to take advantage of new alarm signalling capabilities is part of this picture, and there needs to be increased cooperation between Fire and Emergency and the alarm maintenance industry. Business as usual will see the number of unwanted alarms continue to climb, and it’s likely that eventually a fire will occur with avoidable fatalities.

Read the full report here.

Photo credit: Fire and Emergency New Zealand