Fighting False Fire Alarms In Facilities

More than just an annoyance, false alarms and nuisance alarms can pose dangers to building occupants.


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More than just an annoyance, false alarms and nuisance alarms can pose dangers to building occupants.
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Fighting False Fire Alarms In Facilities

More than just an annoyance, false alarms and nuisance alarms can pose dangers to building occupants.

Fighting False Fire Alarms In Facilities

By Allan B. Colombo
From the December 2018 Issue

The company or institution whose fire alarm system repeatedly cries wolf will surely face hefty fines, which is intended to send management a strong message: “Get it fixed! Keep it fixed!” It doesn’t take long for the average facility manager to seek the help of a fire alarm contractor capable of doing whatever must be done to keep everyone on-site safe when it comes to fire prevention.

false alarms
A service technician checks the smoke detector sensitivity setting from a fire alarm control panel. (Photo: GPS Fire)

The need for constant care with regards to fire alarm systems in institutional and commercial spaces is an intensely important issue fueled by mandates, supported by fire codes adopted, and enforced by local government, state fire inspectors, insurance companies, and others. Failure to comply can result in unwanted alarms which can invoke fines, penalties, and sometimes non-response, not to mention the padlocking of doors in the event that the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) deems it necessary.

Even more importantly is the cost of operations associated with running a fleet of fire trucks up and down the road—not to mention the risk of life and limb every time they’re dispatched, especially when it’s an unwanted alarm (See sidebar, “By the Numbers,” below).

“It pays to stay ahead of the potential problems that can occur over the course of time in a fire alarm system. Most of them are preventable with routine maintenance and constant observation—both of which are requirements of NFPA 72 (National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code),” says John Larkin, senior partner with Electronic Systems Consultants (ESC) of Columbus, OH.

In most cases, fire alarm systems must be functionally tested once a year while doing a visual inspection six months later. The other aspect associated with the issue of unwanted alarms relates to the hiring of a capable fire alarm company. Larkin says that “by hiring a company that’s factory authorized, whose technicians also are factory trained and certified, you’ll save money in false alarm fines while assuring that your fire alarm systems are up to date and able to do the job when required to do so.”

Unwanted Alarms: Common Causes

One of the biggest causes of an unwanted fire alarm is that of misapplication. This is where the wrong device is used in the wrong application or setting. The second biggest cause is that of poor installation practices.

“I have seen many causes of false and nuisance alarms over the years. Improperly located smoke detectors too near heating and air conditioning vents, too close to cooking appliances, smoke detectors used where there should have been a heat detector, and others,” says Todd Domer, director of engineered systems with northeast Ohio-based GPS Fire.

Sometimes a situation or application has changed over the years since the original fire alarm was installed. This can change the dynamics of detection, thus causing unwanted alarms. Domer says that if a proper visual inspection is performed in these areas, misapplied detectors and sensors can be discovered before they become a problem. “A knowledgeable fire alarm tech will notify the end-user/facility manager of these changes. They’ll also offer possible solutions that will help to keep nuisance alarms from happening,” he adds.

Installation practices, or the lack thereof, is also a reason why unwanted alarms occur. “This is further compounded when you have a general service contractor that dabbles in many industries, such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), building automation systems (BAS), security, and toxic gas monitors (TGMs). While low voltage is low voltage, a lack of knowledge and expertise with fire code allows jack-of-all-trade technicians to inaccurately apply various industry standards for different system types,” says Ryan McCorkendale, SET, Special Hazards/Alarm Detection with VFP Fire Systems (formerly Viking Fire Protection), of Huntington, WV. “In addition, a large majority of fire protection contractors are looking to sell the code-required minimum to be competitive and don’t truly take into consideration the application.”

An example of this where the installer fails to seal the back box of a smoke detector(s) installed in a suspended ceiling which also is used as a return air plenum. Another example of poor installation practices is hanging cable to suspended ceiling grid wires, which is against code. Or, there may be lack of care when pulling cable across the sharp, metal edging of one or more male connectors and other conduit fittings. This can skin the outer insulation from one or more conductors causing them to possibly come into contact with earth ground when the conduit is subjected to condensation inside the conduit, or when vibration in the structure (as from a nearby freeway or a passing train) causes contact to occur.

Many times, buyers also are looking for the best price available, which means the installation can suffer, resulting in unwanted alarms. Buying on price alone can lead to a “subpar installation due to cutting corners instead of adhering strictly to the published specifications,” says McCorkendale.

“One of the major issues with these facilities is the fact that the installers on the job often do not have a working knowledge of NFPA 13, 70, 72, and 101,” says ESC’s Larkin.

NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems; NFPA 70, National Electrical Code; NFPA 72, National fire alarm and Signaling Code; and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code are the four main building blocks on which all fire alarm systems are built.

“Without an intimate, working knowledge of each one, an installer is only guessing at what must be done in order to comply with local fire codes. Inspectors will usually catch the most glaring code infractions, but sometimes it’s the small ones that can cause the bulk of the problems,” says Larkin.

Improvements That Help Prevent Unwanted Alarms

Perhaps one of the biggest advancements in fire technology that has done the most good is that of addressable fire alarm technology. In addressable systems, every detector carries an identifiable digital code. With this technology comes the ability to determine sensitivity issues right down to a specific smoke detector. Smoke and heat detectors, which connect to a common data bus, transmit their identities along with a status report to let the fire alarm control panel know when there’s a problem.

false alarms
At this installation location, there is a lack of code enforcement and no permit process. Thus, the original installers failed to follow best practices as it pertains to NFPA 70, National Electric Code. The most glaring is the failure to remove unused, or abandoned cable; unless that cable is labeled “for future use,” which is not the case. (Photo: VFP Fire Systems)

By comparison, conventional fire alarm systems (and there are still many out there) consist of zones with multiple smoke and heat detectors connected in such a manner that when one goes into alarm, there is no way to immediately know which one did it without inspecting the entire lot. But even that doesn’t always work because there’s often one person in the crowd that pushes the reset button, resetting the system and the offending detector cannot be identified.

“Addressable systems have the ability to set sensitivity on each detector [as needed]. It can be set for time of day also, so it will have lower sensitivity when there are occupants in the building that could create dust or anything [else] that could set off the alarm. Also, this technology provides alarm verification so that the smoke detectors will reset and look for another alarm within one minute’s time,” says GPS Fire’s Domer.

He adds that many fire alarm equipment manufacturers have made advances in the detectors themselves so they can better differentiate between actual particles of combustion (smoke from an actual fire) and that of dust and dirt. Signal analysis combined with the addition of temperature and carbon dioxide (CO) sensors all work together to give the fire alarm system a better view of what’s going on in the immediate vicinity.

NFPA also has made changes to fire code that allows duct-type smoke detectors to issue a supervisory condition when they sense things like dust, dirt, and other substances in the environment that might otherwise be interpreted as smoke. This type of smoke detector attaches to a return air duct using a special housing and sampling tubes to determine if there is smoke present in the airstream.

“Duct detectors, for example, are prone to false alarming. However, the code now allows us to monitor them as supervisory devices rather than alarm detection devices. From a technologies standpoint, we have: sensitivity settings and cross zoning that require more than one event to confirm if it’s a true alarm, time delay verification, and others. There are many ways to mitigate false alarms, such as making better product selection, code enhancements, and the hiring of qualified integrators,” says McCorkendale.

Hiring A Fire Alarm Integration Company

With all the above information in mind, the question on the table is, how can you, as a facility manager, be assured that the fire alarm systems in your building(s): 1) are fully compliant with current fire code, and 2) what steps can you take to ensure that these systems continue to operate as designed in the foreseeable future?

All three professional fire alarm experts agree that the best way to hire a qualified company to install a new fire alarm system or maintain one or more existing systems is to administer the following questions:

  1. Is your firm authorized by a fire alarm equipment manufacturer?
  2. What fire alarm lines does your company represent?
  3. Does this manufacturer provide factory certification for your fire alarm technicians?
  4. Do your techs have to return yearly for training to maintain their factory certifications?
  5. Are any of your technicians NICET (National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies) certified?
  6. What is the highest NICET certification rating (NICET 1 through NICET 4) held by your top technicians?

Note that NICET certification is an earned status given to technicians that take the initiative to study and take extensive tests to earn it. The NICET organization was established in 1961 to create certification for engineering technicians and technologists within the United States. It’s not usually required in order for most if not all states to accept fire alarm technicians and the companies they work for, but having a NICET certification shows commitment and initiative on the part of those who have earned it.

In conclusion, it’s important to verify the credibility of the service company you hire to care for your fire alarm system. According to fire code, you are required to have a contract in place for routine inspections and ongoing service after the initial installation. Be sure that the contractor you choose employs factory trained, certified, and well-credentialed technicians.

Colombo, a recipient of the prestigious Jesse H. Neal Award, is a longtime trade journalist in the security and life safety markets. His articles have appeared in locksmith, security, and fire-related magazines since the mid 1980s. He can be contacted via his website, www.Tpromo.Com.


NUISANCE AND FALSE ALARMS

For the purpose of clarity, a nuisance alarm is often an unknown alarm. The cause can be anything from spiders in a smoke detector to a high-power transmitter in a passing motor vehicle, like a federal police vehicle. It can be a module in the fire alarm panel, a malfunctioning notification and/auxiliary power supply, an annunciator, or a million and one other things going bad. It can be the result of condensation in a piece of galvanized EMT conduit, or the result of a lightning strike.

A false alarm, on the other hand, is often the result of something that someone has done, like when a person surreptitiously pulls a manual fire pull. It also can be an acetylene torch in a location where work is being done and someone forgot to bag the smoke detector(s). Also included is a smoke detector in a breakroom that didn’t especially like a bag of popcorn in the microwave—you get the picture.

“Nuisance alarms are usually due to things like cooking or shower steam, dust in a smoke detector, etc., that cause an alarm. False alarms are usually deliberate, such as pulling a [manual pull] station, blowing cigar smoke into a smoke detector, that sort of thing,” says Nick Markowitz, owner of Markowitz Electric & Integration of Verona, PA.

There are many causes for nuisance/false alarms that facility managers need to be aware of:

  • Smoke detectors that are installed too near heating and air conditioning vents
  • Smoke detectors installed too near cooking appliances, such as cooktops, ovens, fryers
  • Smoke detectors used where there should have been heat detectors
  • Whenever filters are changed, the dust that is stirred up can cause an alarm.
  • Wrong type of cable, such as common burglar alarm cable instead of power-limited cable for fire alarm systems
  • Wrong cable can pertain to using a cable that has only enough conductors to maintain basic supervision.
  • Manual fire pulls installed out of doors.

BY THE NUMBERS

Just how bad is the ratio of good alarms to bad? Through a study performed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) of Quincy, MA, it was revealed that, in 2012, fire departments within the United States had responded to 2.2 million false alarms—one for every 12 fire calls.

By the numbers, according to NFPA, for the years 2011 and 2012:

  • False alarms decreased by 6.1% from the year before.
  • System malfunctions decreased 4.7%, which accounted for 713,000 or 31.9% of all false alarms.
  • Malicious false calls decreased 8.2%, accounting for 167,500 or 8.2% of all false calls.
  • Unintentional false calls (e.g., tripping an interior device accidentally and includes carbon monoxide detectors) accounted for 1,044,500 or 46.6% of all false alarms.
  • Other false calls, which includes bomb scares, accounted for 313,500 or 14% of all false calls.

This is not the end of the story either. There’s also the issue of costs associated with false and nuisance alarms.

“Costs can vary wildly depending on the type of call firefighters respond to—a false alarm or medical call might be resolved quickly, while a warehouse fire or arson investigation could take hours. But that’s not the reason for the two costs shown in the headline,” says Amos Bridges, author of “The cost of calling firefighters: $31 … or $1,308?”

“‘It really depends on what you include in your calculation,’ said Springfield Fire Chief David Hall. Is the cost of building, maintaining and staffing each firehouse included, then divided by the number of calls to 911? ‘That way you’re accounting for all the downtime.’” Bridges writes for News-Leader.com.

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