Reducing False Alarms
What are false alarms?
Fire alarm systems provide an early warning in the event of a fire, representing one of the most effective methods to ensure the safety of your business, staff, and customers.
Unfortunately, most signals from these systems do not indicate actual fires. Instead, they are often false alarms, frequently triggered by cooking fumes, dust, or a lack of maintenance, leading to unnecessary call-outs for our fire crews.
From 1 February 2024, our False Alarm Policy is changing, and we will no longer respond to automatic fire alarm call-outs at occupied commercial business and workplace premises, such as factories, offices, shops, and leisure facilities unless a fire has been confirmed.
Dutyholders responsible for workplace premises should safely investigate a fire alarm before calling 999. Our control room operators will require confirmation of an actual fire, or signs of fire, before dispatching resources.
Signs of fire include visible flames, smoke, a smell of burning, or a strong indicator from a fire alarm system. The following types of premises will not be affected by this change and will continue to receive an emergency response:
- Sleeping premises, such as hospitals, care homes, hotels, or domestic dwellings;
- Unoccupied premises such as churches, chapels, community halls, public buildings, schools, or doctors’ surgeries; and
- Situations where the type of premises is unknown.
This change in response strategy is estimated to significantly reduce unnecessary call-outs, thereby freeing up our firefighters to attend real emergencies and engage in more community safety and prevention work.
Watch our ‘Time for Change’ video
What do I need to do next?
- As a dutyholder, you must ensure that your premises are safe for staff, visitors, and occupants in the event of a fire. You have a responsibility under The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 to maintain the facilities and equipment provided. Failure to do this could lead to prosecution.
- Staff and occupants should be made aware of how to respond safely to automatic fire alarm activations in each premises. Ignoring them or assuming the fire and rescue service has been notified could put people at risk.
- You should contact your insurance company to discuss the changes in response to automatic fire alarm activations, but please note that NIFRS will always attend a confirmed fire.
- If there is a fire, you should always call 999 immediately and follow other specific strategies, such as evacuation and assembly points.
How do you investigate a fire alarm?
To do this safely, on hearing a fire alarm:
- Evacuate the building.
- Nominated person goes to the fire alarm panel.
- Confirm the location of the activation by reading the fire alarm panel and the zone plan.
- Go to the location.
- If signs of fire are discovered at any time, leave immediately using the nearest exit, call 999 and report to the assembly point.
- If signs of fire are not discovered, identify the cause of the activation.
- Return to the fire alarm panel.
- Silence the alarm.
- Reset the alarm.
- Confirm the fire alarm panel is healthy.
- Report to the assembly point that everyone may re-enter the building.
- When investigating the activation, look, listen, and smell for signs of fire. This will not put anyone at risk because at any time if signs of fire are observed, they should leave immediately using the nearest exit, call 999 and report to the assembly point.
- If possible, have another member of staff at the alarm panel and remain in contact (mobile phones or short-range radios are ideal for this purpose).
- It is vital that you have a full zone or detector plan displayed immediately adjacent to the fire alarm panel.
- If the premises are fitted with a sophisticated fire alarm system, it may immediately confirm signs of a fire. If so, call 999 immediately.
- If the fire alarm panel has been programmed with up to a 6 minute investigation period, begin at Step 2 above. If signs of fire are discovered, operate the nearest break glass point, leave immediately using the nearest exit, call 999 and report to the assembly point.
- Spare frangible glasses to repair break glass points should be kept close at hand.
- The nominated person should know how to read the fire alarm panel, understand the zone plan, the building layout and how to contact the fire alarm engineer.
How should an alarm be reset after a false alarm?
The following advice will help you to comply with fire safety legislation, keep your staff and premises safe, and avoid future fire alarms:
- It is good practice to allow the evacuation to complete (interrupting an evacuation is confusing and leads to a false sense of security that every alarm is false).
- Ensure that whoever has been given the responsibility to reset the fire alarm is trained and competent to do so. If arrangements have been made with a third party to ensure the alarm is reset, (such as an on-call fire alarm company) details of how to contact the company should be displayed immediately adjacent to the panel.
- Any third-party company contracted to reset your alarm should be able to attend within a reasonable time period as some fire alarms may not detect another fire if they are in ‘silenced’ mode or have not been fully reset.
- Firefighters will not reset your fire alarm system for you. It is your responsibility to reset or employ an on-call alarm company to reset for you.
- Ensure the details of any false alarm are recorded in the fire alarm logbook. Record why it happened (if known) and its specific location. This is essential to demonstrate your compliance with fire safety legislation and to ensure that accurate information is held for follow-up.
- All false alarms should be reported to the premises manager so that action can be taken to prevent further false alarms.
Advice for fire alarm monitoring organisations
We have published a Fire Alarm Monitoring Code of Practice to provide specific advice for Fire Alarm Monitoring Organisations (FAMOs) and help improve mutual understanding. It includes an easy-to-follow flow chart to help operators obtain and provide the necessary information.
How you can help to reduce false alarms
As a dutyholder you have a responsibility under The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 to maintain the facilities and equipment provided. Failure to do this could lead to prosecution.
We fully support the installation of automatic fire alarm systems, but these systems must be managed and maintained to reduce false alarms and ensure that they activate at the right time and achieve the correct response.
You must work with your fire risk assessor and update your fire risk assessment with any changes.
We also have a team of fire safety inspectors available who will engage with the managers of premises to help reduce false alarms. They can be contacted through your local area office.
Common Faults and Solutions
Listed below are a series of solutions that can be implemented to address the common faults that cause false alarms.
If your fire alarm sounds, check first to confirm if there is a fire or fire symptoms before calling NIFRS. Do not call NIFRS if it is a false alarm. The only exception is in residential care premises when NIFRS should always be called immediately.
A zone plan, or a written description of the zone locations relating to your fire alarm system, should always be on display beside your fire alarm panel.
The user should maintain a log book to record all false alarms, the action taken, and the maintenance and testing of the system.
Should include input on the type of fire alarm system in your premises and the correct procedures for both raising the alarm and investigating a fire alarm actuation. Details of training must be recorded.
A keyholder trained to reset the alarm system should be contacted by the Fire Alarm Monitoring Organisation (FAMO) or Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC) in the event of an alarm outside of normal business hours. They should be able to attend the premises within 20 minutes of being notified. NIFRS will not reset alarm panels.
A maintenance contract must be in place to rectify faults and service the system on a regular basis.
Ensure heat detectors are fitted in kitchen areas and ensure that adequate ventilation is provided. Many false alarms are caused by the inappropriate siting of detectors or the wrong type of detector for the identified risk.
Ensure that adequate ventilation is provided in showers or bathrooms and consider re-siting or fitting an alternative type of detector if steam is causing repeated false alarms.
Prevent accidental operation and deter malicious operation by moving manual call points to a more suitable location or fitting a protective flap or cover over call points. If a cover or flap is fitted, clear instruction on use must be provided to staff and visitors.
Smoking regulations prevent most premises from having indoor smoking areas. They are permitted in care homes, hospices and prisons but must be a specific room with adequate ventilation and a heat detector.
Workers and Engineers must be briefed prior to working. If dust will be generated, place a cover over the detector head and remove when the work is complete. No-one should be permitted to work in the area, or on the system without being briefed by management in advance.
If your premises is/are connected to a Fire Alarm Monitoring Organisation, make sure they are informed before any work is carried out on the system. If your alarm actuates, ensure they can contact your premises to confirm that a fire, or signs of fire, have been detected. Advise them of your normal hours of business because this information may affect any emergency response from NIFRS.
Complete the required weekly test of your alarm system at the same time and on the same day of each week for all routine fire alarm system checks, and inform your Fire Alarm Monitoring Organisation of this day and time.
What are the benefits of reducing false alarms?
- Each false alarm can lead people to become complacent when they hear the fire alarm.
- There is a cost to you as a business from productive time lost.
- Firefighters will not be diverted from other emergencies, training, and other prevention and protection work.
- Blue light responses lead to road accidents, so any reduction means less risk on our roads.
More information can be found in the Reducing False Alarms Guidance Note.
If you require further information or advice in relation to the change in our response to automatic fire alarm actuations from 1 February 2024, then please email [email protected].
Your local area office can also be contacted.