A follow-up phone call to 911 to advise them that you have a working fire will change the call type that they have dispatched and will ensure you are receiving the correct emergency response. This is even more crucial if you are dealing with any type of hazardous material on your property.

Real Threat or False Alarm: Are You Prepared for the Next Time the Fire Alarm Sounds?

Each type of alarm requires its own unique response, and a fire alarm is no different.

It’s 2:30 in the morning, and you're awakened by the sound of your phone signaling distress. We have all had those types of calls in the middle of the night. They are rarely ever from bearers of good news. Whether the call is from an employee on your site or by the alarm company that is hired to monitor your property, are you really ready for the next steps?

Has the employee who has been selected for "on-call" duty had any training to prepare them for this call? While these calls are often the result of a malfunction or false alarm, what is going to happen at your facility if it’s the real deal? There are many aspects to consider within your fire safety program, but today let's start with the notification process. Hopefully, it will lead to some discussion about your action plan prior to your next system review.

If you have investigated the fire alarm and it turns out to be an actual working fire, does your action plan include a follow-up call to 911? This small step could be very important, and let me explain why. The way that these types of calls are handled by fire departments varies around the country. Some departments will handle a fire alarm call with a full response of several units, which will include lots of staffing. The majority of the departments will handle this type of call with a much smaller response—usually with only one and sometimes two units. Some departments even may treat an alarm call more or less as a service call and respond non-emergency.

Much of the time, property managers are not aware of this call classification. It is crucial to know how your responding department will handle this type of call.  Pay attention to what kind of response you get the next time the alarm sounds: Studies have shown that a typical uncontrolled fire will double in size every 45 to 60 seconds. As always, seconds matter in all emergencies, especially those at the beginning of the emergency. A follow-up phone call to 911 to advise them that you have a working fire will change the call type that they have dispatched and will ensure you are receiving the correct emergency response. This is even more crucial if you are dealing with any type of hazardous material on your property.

Accessibility Issues and Equipment
Let's talk about accessibility next. This includes not only accessibility to both your property and/or building, but to your alarm panel, as well. Security concerns vary from business to business, as do normal operating hours. For those properties that do not have someone on site 24 hours a day, consideration should be given to some type of key safe device that allows access to your property for emergency personnel.

These devices are normally installed in a location that is not readily or easily accessible to the general public. The only personnel who have control of this device generally are the fire department. Unique keys and systems for these keys are stored on the responding units and include electronic use logs to ensure their security. Use of these types of systems helps to prevent delays in accessing your property and investigating the cause of the alarm activation. Additional keys, maps, and contact information also can be kept inside these devices. Your local fire department can help in any discussion about the use of these types of devices.

Alarm panels can provide valuable information and aid in the determination of what has caused the system to trip. The effective use of these panels depends on several things:

  • Is the panel easily accessed?
  • Is the panel locked?
  • Who has the key?
  • Is there a key for the panel included in the key safe for the fire department to use?
  • Is the system labeled correctly?
  • Have there been any additions to the property since the system was installed?
  • If the system is divided into zones, is there a map showing the various zones of the property?

These seemingly minor questions can help save valuable seconds in the case of an emergency. I have responded to numerous alarm calls where the key holder had no idea how to work their way through the various notification panel screens. This was further complicated when this same person did not have any knowledge of the location codes that were being displayed. These types of things make mitigation of the problem at hand that much more difficult; the larger the property, the more important that these little things become. Delays can be costly.

Responding to False Alarms
Our discussion on alarms leads us right into the subject of false alarms. When we think about it, is there really such thing as a false alarm? Granted, the alarm may not be sounding for the reason that it is named, however, it is signaling some type of trouble within the system itself. How does your response plan handle these types of situations? Are there steps in place to ensure that the problem is being properly investigated with the appropriate measures taken to reset the system?

Ideally, the alarm should remain active while the investigation is taking place. If no hazardous conditions are found in the area where the detector activation occurred and there have not been any further alarm trips, then consideration can be given to silencing the alarm. While the alarm is silenced, the cause of the activation can be further narrowed down to that one specific zone and hopefully to a single detector.

Often it is a faulty or dirty detector that has caused the activation. Once all other possible causes are ruled out, then the alarm can be reset. If the alarm system cannot be properly restored immediately, steps should be taken so that your property remains protected until the system can be repaired. Options would include turning off the power to this one zone or placing an employee on fire watch. This process should help prevent having the fire department be called back again at a later time for the same problem and also provides assurance that there was no other cause for the alarm activation.

Repeated alarms can be costly: Several municipalities across the nation now levy fines for repeated responses to fire alarm calls. Such calls are a drain on limited manpower and tight budgets. This has helped lead to the varying response levels to these types of calls.

Employee Fire Safety Training
Lastly, provide effective training for your employees. Alarms are designed to provide quick notification of a developing problem. They are effective only if your employees know how to respond to them.

Industries operate with alarms within their systems and processes daily. Alarms and sensors indicate a myriad of developing problems and notifications: a valve malfunction, temperature changes, something too full, or something about to run empty. The list is virtually endless. Sometimes they only indicate the need for further monitoring, but others require something much more substantial. Each type of alarm requires its own unique response, and a fire alarm is no different.

Does the employee responding to your alarm have the training to understand the system and respond accordingly, whether there is a "real" emergency or not? Time and time again, the importance of responding and reacting appropriately in the early stages of an emergency is realized. The ability to understand the problem with the correct situational awareness to think ahead is crucial. If this emergency situation continues to worsen, where is it going to lead? If you deal with hazardous materials on your property, this type of thinking is even more important.

Whether dealing with the employees on the site or the public located around your business, the next step may be to call for an evacuation. Where are the safety zones going to be located? Is the employee who has responded prepared with the critical thinking that is required for this incident? All of these things should be addressed during the next review of your emergency response plan.

When is the last time that your fire alarm sounded? How was it handled? Did it go well? When’s the last time that the fire department visited your location? Are they aware of your emergency response plan? Fire departments aren’t that different from industry or companies; they, too, have their own operating guidelines and response plans, and these include pre-incident planning. Consider including the fire department in one of your training evolutions. The more details that they know about your property and your plan, the better.

By starting with the basics such as a response to a fire alarm, the possibilities are endless and can provide for interesting discussion and insight. We all share the common goal of providing a safe work environment, which includes protecting lives and property.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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