False fire alarms can play havoc with a school day, as well as place huge strain on the fire services. But there are ways to reduce the number of incidents, advises the Fire Industry Association.
False fire alarms can be a real problem for some schools – interrupting carefully planned lessons, forcing teachers to give up their precious PPA time should they be out of class at the time of the alarm, and even causing major disruption to exams. False alarms can be a huge set back – even half an hour out of a school day can force teachers to have to reschedule whole days of learning and have to play catch-up later in the week.
Additionally, false fire alarms place a huge strain on the fire and rescue services, who are continually called out to false alarms.
The Home Office recently released national statistics that stated that 215,814 incidents attended by the fire service were false alarms. This accounts for nearly 44 per cent of call‑outs nationwide. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that schools ensure that incidents are carefully managed in order to reduce false alarms.
Types of false alarms
There are four different types of false alarms, and they can all be avoided.
The first type is down to the fire detectors activating in the presence of ‘smoke-like’ conditions, such as toast burning, steam from a shower or kettle, or even detecting smoke from outside, such as bonfire through an open window on a breezy day. In this instance, solutions are fairly simple – simply keep sources of ‘smoke‑like’ phenomena away from detectors or consider changing the detector to a different type, such as a heat detector rather than a smoke detector in kitchen and lab areas.
False alarms can also be down to a genuine concern that there could indeed be a fire, such as when a staff member thinks that they can smell burning. Whilst the intentions may be good, the best option here is perhaps to ask staff to verify their suspicions about the presence of fire before activating the alarm. They could just be smelling burnt school dinners or a science experiment, so it is always a good idea to check (if it is safe to do so).
The third kind of false alarm is down to faulty equipment. In some older schools, the fire alarm may be as old as the building itself and may have a variety of different detectors and call points from different manufacturers (due to being replaced over the years). Like Windows and Apple, these products may not always want to connect with each other and the assistance of a reliable fire alarm technician will be required in order to maintain them and keep all the alarms in working order. It may also be worth noting that some manufacturers will consider some of their products obsolete after 10-20 years, and parts in order to repair detectors and other fire alarm equipment may not be available, so in that instance, a new fire alarm system may be recommended.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems for schools is malicious activation. This is the fourth and final kind of false alarm. Alas, children will be children; some of them will resort to just about anything to escape lesson times or exams, even if it means pressing the manual call point for the fire alarm, forcing everyone to waste time out in the playground lining up. In this instance it can be hard to pin down the culprit, especially in a large school with lots of different buildings and corridors.
A newspaper recently reported of a Welsh high school where pupils deliberately activated the fire alarm in order to escape class a total of 15 times in the space of three months, with the majority of incidents occurring around exam time. This in itself is hugely disruptive, but the problem needn’t spiral out of control as it did in this case, and can easily be addressed.
Perhaps the best option is to consider fitting plastic covers over all the manual call points (the button you press to activate the alarm) in the school. Strangely enough, just a simple plastic cover can be a deterrent in itself – the additional action of needing to lift up the cover before pressing the alarm makes the idea of activating the alarm just that little bit more disobedient. Fitting plastic covers also helps to prevent the button being accidentally pushed, such as by a misfired football or cricket ball in the school hall, or simply by the elbows of pupils as they rush past in heaving corridors.
Another nifty addition to the plastic cover is the squawk alarm. A brilliant little device, these can be fitted to any call point and will make a loud noise if the cover is lifted – without setting off the fire alarm itself. The noise should be enough to surprise any overly curious or wayward pupil, and should also be loud enough to alert the nearest teacher. The good thing about these little squawk alarms is that if you can get the more responsible pupils on your side, you can ask them to report any pupil they hear or see touching the alarm system to a teacher, which is especially useful if a teacher isn’t nearby at the time of the incident.
Record the incidents
Perhaps the most important thing that you can do in the battle against false alarms is to write down every single incident in the fire alarm’s log book. Gather as much information about the false alarm as possible – the date, time, and the cause of activation. If you know which detector or manual call point caused the alarm, and in which building, write these down too. Maintenance staff should be fully trained in how to do this – if not then it is vital to inform them of their duty to do so.
The reason for doing this is so that you can get a clearer picture of when the alarms are happening, and the causes. If, for example, the alarm always goes off in one building, and not in the others, then you can inform the fire alarm maintenance company of this and they can fix it. However, if the alarm always activates during Tuesday’s P.E. lessons in the sports hall, then you know that a cover may need to be fitted on the call points in the sports hall. If in the case of malicious activation and you don’t know who the culprit is – this is your way of finding out which group of pupils it may have been, especially if you can narrow it down to a particular corridor on a particular day.
As with most issues within schools, educating both the staff and pupils on the use and misuse of the fire alarm system should help to ease any false alarms. It really is important that everyone understands what the fire alarm call points are for, and when they should be pressed – and why they really should not be pressed when there is no fire. Your local fire and rescue service will thank you for it.
Furthermore, regular maintenance of the fire alarm system will help to keep false alarms to a minimum. The Fire Industry Association (FIA) recommends that maintenance should be carried out at not less than six monthly intervals, and whenever the fire alarm system reports a fault. The simplest and quickest way to get this done is through the use of a reliable and properly qualified fire alarm maintenance technician from a certified company. They will be able to check all of the fire alarm equipment and inform you of any changes or work that will need to be carried out.
A list of certified companies is available free of charge on the Fire Industry Association website. You can search by company type and by location to find companies near you.
All the companies on the list have passed rigorous checks and audits to ensure that their knowledge, skills, and training are up-to-date, so there is no need to spend hours trawling through Google search results pages trying to find a company that knows what they are doing.
Go to www.fia.uk.com, and click ‘Find a member’ to find reliable certified member companies.
Also available on the FIA website is a handy section entitled ‘Cut False Alarm Costs’, which contains a number of different tactics not discussed in this article to help you reduce the number of false alarms occurring.