Taking steps to combat false alarms

25 Feb 2019 / 09:39

Paul Pope, Head of System Integration and Technical Support at Apollo Fire Detectors, explains why sophisticated detection technology – coupled with better management of fire detection systems – is key to combatting false alarms.

With reports suggesting that it incidences of false alarms are reducing year on year, it’s clear that tighter regulation, enhanced detection systems and a more professional approach to systems management have helped to address this age-old challenge. However, these statistics are no excuse for our sector to rest on our collective laurels. Irrespective of where they take place, repeated false alarms cause significant problems and, ultimately, can lead to occupants ignoring a genuine alarm, potentially resulting in a loss of life.  

The need for a bespoke solution

Improving the management of fire detection systems by site owners and maintenance contractors is vital if we are to further reduce false alarm incidents. By routinely checking that systems are operating properly and addressing any subsequent maintenance issues, the risk of false alarm incidents can be reduced. Hand-in-hand with this is the crucial issue of replacing detectors and devices when they have reached the end of their manufacturer-recommended lifespan; this will undoubtedly increase a system’s reliability.  System designers also need to take into account the differing detection and response strategy requirements for both occupied and unoccupied buildings. Both have unique demands which means a ‘one size fits all’ approach simply won’t work.

An occupied building has the potential for life to be endangered by real fires and, while it is more susceptible to false alarms caused by human actions, it also supposes the possibility that early warning (pre-alarm) conditions can be acted on. Occupied buildings may also have personnel on-hand to make an assessment about the validity of an activation, deal with and/or assess an emergency and act on fault and maintenance conditions as they occur.

An unoccupied building, on the other hand, does not risk human casualties directly and has potentially fewer false alarm phenomena, but may not include any on-site verification of abnormal conditions such as faults and fires; the main purpose of the fire system is the protection of property.

These differing factors will, depending on the nature of the premises, impose different strategies when designing, specifying and installing a fire detection system. Having the correct verification/response strategy and detection system in place will lead to fewer false alarms by ensuring that a system is fit for purpose in regard to the appropriate detection sensitivity settings, correct detector type and detector siting.

Advances in detection technology

The design and manufacture of reliable, effective and innovative fire detection devices is critical to reducing false alarms. We believe that the best solution to combat false alarms is the use of innovative technology to ‘design out’ the variety of issues that can cause them. There will always be contributing factors which will never be eradicated by any manufacturer, eg malicious manual call point activations, but there are certainly recurring causes which can be addressed.

Developing technology that addresses the main causes of false alarms is a core area of focus and investment for Apollo. A great example of this is our SOTERIA® fire detectors, which incorporate an optical sensing technology called PureLight®.  PureLight® detects smoke particles entering its chambers. A cone sensing chamber allows light from the LED to be entirely absorbed, reducing reflections in the chamber.  SOTERIA detectors also incorporate an advanced chip sensor which significantly improves the detection of smoke and enhances reliability of the detection process.  The sleek low profile design of the detectors means that less dust penetrates the outer casing. They have also been designed to be less sensitive to any dust that accumulates over long periods of time. Finally, a fine mesh barrier provides protection from insects – another common cause of false alarms – making it harder for them to enter the device. Careful design of the optical chamber also ensures that any insect small enough to penetrate the mesh barrier has fewer opportunities to interrupt the operation of the smoke detector.

From 5–10 weekly false alarms to zero

Earlier this year, SOTERIA detectors were specified for Canada Court, a purpose-built student and NHS key worker accommodation site located in Surrey, England, which has over 450 residences across 12 buildings. The site is operated by the housing association A2Dominion. Prior to installing the new detection system, between five and ten false alarms were taking place every week, which was clearly unacceptable for residents, maintenance teams and the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service.

Known as Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), these premises require specialist attention when it comes to designing and specifying a fire detection system. A recognised problem within HMOs is repeated false alarms caused by shower spray/steam, hairspray/deodorant aerosols, candles, burnt food and steam from communal kitchens, and dust build-up. But not all false alarms are caused by tenant activities – insects, high humidity, water ingress and external smoke sources can also activate unwanted alarms.  At Canada Court, false alarms were also being caused by contamination on the heads of the old detectors.

Unsurprisingly, Surrey Fire and Rescue Service put the housing association on notice that the fire detection system needed to be replaced or the association would be charged for future call-outs. Millwood Servicing Ltd was appointed as the installer and service and maintenance contractor at the site for the installation of the new fire detection system. With many years of experience of Apollo products, Millwood Servicing recommended our SOTERIA range.

As it was impracticable to move hundreds of tenants out of Canada Court for the duration of the installation, it was vital that the Apollo system was easy to install, with as little disruption to everyday life as possible. In just two weeks, 389 SOTERIA optical and heat multisensors and 63 SOTERIA heat detectors (for the kitchens) were installed, along with one Kentec 4 loop panel and eleven Kentec 1 loop panels.

Since the new SOTERIA system was installed earlier this year, there have been no false alarm call-outs of the emergency services.

Eliminating the risk of false alarms was also a key requirement for a recent upgrade of the fire detection system at RTV Slovenia, Slovenia’s public broadcasting institution, which based in the capital city of Ljubljana. Panel partner and installer, Zarja Elektronika, is responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the fire detection system across all of RTV's buildings, from studios to transmitter centres.

As with many multi-faceted buildings, false alarms were a major problem for RTV, causing unnecessary interference with day-to-day activities and requiring the movement of large numbers of people. However, Zarja Elektronika was able to reassure RTV that the SOTERIA range would not only significantly reduce false alarm incidents, but also satisfy their requirements for absolute reliability and an aesthetically pleasing appearance.

In the latest upgrade, 700 Apollo SOTERIA optical and heat detectors were installed, making a total replacement of around 2000 devices over five years. Zarja Elektronika also installed two addressable Zarja NJP-400A panels, each with four loops. The buildings where the system upgrade took place had to remain open and accessible at all times as RTV broadcasts around the clock.

What’s next?

Although we will never be able to totally eradicate false alarms, as an industry we have a collective responsibility to work together and share best practice in those areas which can make a difference.

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