Responses to fire-alarm activations are common occurrences for fire-department personnel. Having knowledge of building fire-protection systems can make these types of calls less of a burden and make a difference when seconds matter.
You do not have to look extremely far for statistics relating to ‘false’ or ‘nuisance’ alarms created by fire-alarm systems. Departments across the globe have been discussing this topic for decades and there has been much debate regarding handling these types of calls. The fact is, however, that for whatever reason fire departments are dispatched to fire-alarm calls, the more knowledge responders have about system layouts and operations, the easier these calls will be to handle. More importantly, what responders know about fire-alarm systems can make life-altering differences when ‘false alarms’ are not false after all.
The inspiration behind this article comes from a career that started in fire-alarm installation, design and service, and transpired into company-level emergency response for a municipal fire department. It was clear from the beginning of my firefighting career that professional fire alarm and protection system installers, building occupants and emergency services all looked at fire-alarm-system activations from quite different perspectives. All these different perspectives came together in the middle of the night early in my career when my unit was dispatched to a fire-alarm activation that appeared to be just another alarm but, as it turned out, it was anything but.
Where it all begins
During construction of commercial properties, the need for fire-alarm and other fire-protection systems are determined by respective codes. These codes will be enforced during the building process and ultimately inspected and accepted by building officials that could include officials from within fire department organizations. Once the building has met the obligations of the construction process, tenants can occupy the structure and begin everyday operations. This is the time that fire-department personnel need to have a knowledge and understanding of the workings of fire-alarm systems specific to each building within their response districts.
Complexity of fire-alarm systems
In a single-family residential structure, the fire alarm can simply be a standalone smoke-alarm design. Most often this will consist of one or more smoke alarms that work independently to detect smoke and notify the occupants of a fire-related emergency. In some cases, these smoke alarms will be connected to a system that notifies emergency response that activation has occurred.
In a commercial structure that requires a basic fire-alarm system there will be not only manual and automatic detection devices such as pull stations and smoke detectors but also notification devices including audible and visual indicators that the system has been activated. These systems may require communications to notify fire departments of activation.
In commercial structures that are required to have more advanced fire-alarm systems, there are many aspects that need to be considered. The fire-alarm system could have multiple initiating devices including smoke detectors, heat detectors, duct detectors (HVAC units), flame detectors, gas detectors, or several other examples. These systems could also have several different types of notification channels. Some of these might include basic methods such as horns and strobes or could include complex voice evacuation designs and message boards. Commercial fire-alarm designs will also integrate other building-system operations that include sprinkler systems, elevator controls and HVAC controls. These systems will most likely communicate to an off-location communication station that will then alert fire departments of activations.
When on duty fire-operations companies perform pre-incident building inspections, fire-alarm system operations should be considered and thoroughly discussed with not only members of the crew but with building representatives as well. This inspection results in the development of a Pre-incident Plan. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) defines a Pre-incident Plan as ‘A document developed by gathering general and detailed data that is used by responding personnel in effectively managing emergencies for the protection of occupants, responding personnel, property, and the environment’. (NFPA1620 Standard for Pre-incident Planning, 2020 Ed). The design of a pre-incident plan is a collaborative effort between building facilities and operations staff and responding personnel.
Items related to fire-alarm systems that should be essential to any pre-incident plan are:
- Physical location of the Fire Command Centre. The Fire Command Centre is the physical room where the status of the fire-alarm devices that are shown in an alarm condition are monitored. Local and international codes may require this room to be labelled and built within certain specifications.
- Physical location of any remote annunciators. Remote annunciators are smaller versions of the fire-alarm control panel that will display any alarm conditions. Annunciators will often be located at the points of entry that responding personnel will use to access the building. (It is important to determine if a key is required for annunciator use and, if so, where the key is located.)
- Locations of important manual-pull stations and automatic smoke or heat detectors. There will likely be many such devices so the knowledge of all the exact locations may not be necessary.
- Fire-alarm sequence of operations. When a fire alarm is activated, other building systems may be connected and designed to respond accordingly. The most common of these systems are elevators (elevators will enter Fire Service Mode and automatically transfer to the appropriate levels) and HVAC (the heating and air systems in the building may automatically shut off or move air throughout locations of the building).
- In locations that require emergency voice evacuations or firefighter phone communications, it should be determined where the required equipment is stored.
The pre-incident planning inspection is also Important in determining what provisions are in place for the occupants of the location. In some instances, occupants have a designated fire-escape route that can help firefighters with evacuation methods. In other instances, it may be feasible that emergency plans involve occupants who shelter in place. In either case, firefighters need an inside knowledge of the processes and procedures that the building representatives have in place.
One additional item that needs attention during the pre-incident inspection of fire-alarm systems is the records of inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM). In my experience, fire-alarm systems that undergo proper ITM routines stand a less likely chance of false activations and will produce more accurate information when a real emergency causes activation. Any records obtained or observed during the pre-incident inspection can help firefighters with a working knowledge of the system.
There are no ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ fire calls in emergency response, and fire-alarm activations are no different in this regard. In all fire-alarm activations it should be assumed that fire conditions are present and there is a credible threat to life and property.
Like any other response, information transmitted to first-arriving companies is especially important. The ideal dispatch may appear something like this: ‘All companies respond to ABC Building number 1 at 123 Main Street for a fire-alarm activation. Fire alarm reported by a Smoke Detector Activation on the 3rd Floor in the Janitor’s Closet.’ This information would allow companies responding to anticipate a fire in the Janitor’s Closet of the floor and take necessary operational steps to mitigate the emergency. This example of information provided by dispatch would indicate that the fire-alarm panel is an addressable or intelligent system. These systems can specifically identify a single point of alarm transmission to responders. Not all fire-alarm systems are capable of this type of transmission so another example you are likely to encounter is: ‘All companies respond to 123 Main Street for a fire alarm. Zone 2.’ This description is specific to a ‘zone’, which could describe a small area or an entire floor. This is not the best scenario and will require first-arriving companies to investigate further upon entering the building.
A department’s Standard Operating Procedures define how a fire-alarm response is handled and may contain several key elements.
- How much apparatus will be dispatched to alarm activations.
- What information should be transmitted by a first-arriving report.
- Upon entry of the premises, what are the assignments of personnel. At a minimum there should be personnel to investigate the alarm area and personnel to report to the Fire Alarm Control Panel or Fire Command Room. Other response may warrant lobby or elevator control.
- What specific information could be obtained that would upgrade the emergency from an alarm activation to a working fire emergency.
- How do department personnel clear the incident and return the fire-alarm panel to normal operations. This topic has been widely discussed and should have specific guidelines with the operating procedures.
Pre-incident planning and response to fire-alarm emergencies should be an aspect of fire-department company operations that is deserving of time spent learning building systems and understanding why and how they present an emergency. I am aware that there are a substantial number of reported false fire alarms every year, but complacency about these alarms could mean the difference in lives saved or lost and the information you know about the alarm systems when the call comes in will prepare you for the worst of situations.
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