Frustrated by False Alarms?

08/01/2011 | By Jennie Morton

A dust rag and a fire protection engineer may be the answer

Supervisory and trouble alerts call your attention to an area without triggering the entire alarm system.

A high-pitched alarm, flashing lights, and a reluctant evacuation of the building – a false fire alarm has once again lulled your occupants into complacency and annoyance.

False alarms are more than just a nuisance – they indicate there’s a problem with your life safety system. Whether you have an installation or maintenance issue, a false alarm is a warning that your system has been compromised.

Beyond Irritation
“In 2009, there were 2.9 million false alarms,” says Peter Ebersold, director of marketing for NOTIFIER, a manufacturer of life safety systems. “Apart from vandalism and pranks, 32% were unintentional. These were typically caused by incorrectly designed, installed, or maintained fire alarm systems.”

Don’t just ignore false alarms – you can’t continually reset the system or bypass the alarm, hoping it will go away. “Any time there is a false alarm, you need to understand what caused it so any necessary changes can be made to the system or your building,” recommends Ebersold.

Bring in a qualified system designer, such as a fire protection engineer, to pinpoint what’s causing the alarms. They will be able to make adjustments on the spot, particularly if you have an installation error.

You can also do your own due diligence by asking these three simple questions:

  • Has the system been regularly tested?
  • Are the detectors clean and receiving routine maintenance?
  • Has this space changed since the alarms were installed?

Correct Sensitivity Levels
A common cause for nuisance alarms is hypersensitivity. “The detector is doing its job but there is no real threat,” explains Mark Blackburn, a fire protection engineer for the fire and security consulting firm Hughes Associates, Inc. “You may have smoke detectors in a dorm that are going off because of students smoking. There is no fire, but the detector sensed smoke.”

If this is the case, you can change the sensitivity level and still be compliant with code. This is a great tactic for heat detectors that are set off by steam from a shower or a kitchen vent. “This can require the manufacturer’s assistance, but takes only a few minutes and is well worth the cost of ongoing false alarms,” says Blackburn.

You can also program alarms to send “trouble” and “tamper” alerts before fully activating the system. These threshold levels are determined by the system designer, the capabilities of the hardware, and how the space is used.

“You can set your system to a low threshold that triggers a supervisory alert to the facility manager or a guard station,” says Ebersold. “That individual can then go to the location and verify whether there’s a real alarm or not.”

Detect Multiple Indicators
There are also systems that will activate only if multiple fire signatures are detected, such as combinations of smoke, light, heat, or carbon monoxide, says Blackburn.

Instead of a system that is overly attuned to its environment, you can also program tiered alerts for added control. “These systems have intelligence built into them to interpret what’s vandalism or tampering as opposed to a real alarm,” explains Ebersold. If a system detects smoke but not heat, it can send an alert to a manager instead of setting off all of your sirens and strobe lights.

Clean Up Your Act
Has your maintenance routine for your alarms been a little lax? Then grab some cleaning supplies and make sure your sensors and detectors aren’t collecting a blanket of dust.

“The most important thing you can do to prevent false alarms is regularly test and maintain your systems,” says Ebersold. “Some systems even come with maintenance alerts that can sense and communicate with the panel when a device needs to be cleaned.”

If your maintenance contracts are provided by your system installer, make sure to verify your terms and fees. The greatest portion of a system’s cost is often tied to its operations, so don’t let upgrades fall by the wayside, advises Ebersold.

There’s no fire-proof way to avoid false alarms, but you can greatly reduce their occurrence by sticking to your maintenance plan and nailing down root causes.

Jennie Morton ( is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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