We’re all familiar with a fire alarm—the blaring, the strobe lights and the reverberation of noise. When we’re inside a building and one goes off, we exit as quickly as possible, searching for safety and refuge from that deafening sound.
Firefighters don’t have that luxury. In fact, their livelihood depends on their ability to identify the origination of fumes and keep everyone from harm.
Upon entering a building, the first thing they have to do is locate the alarm—a task not as easy as it sounds. Firefighters have to first locate the fire alarm control panel, which is usually tucked away in the back closet of the building, according to Ben Racho, a firefighter in Westport, Connecticut. They then have to figure out how to turn it off, which is complicated by the fact that there are numerous makes and models on the market.
“It’s extremely distracting,” Racho explains. “We can still concentrate, but at three in the morning, guys start getting crabby.”
“We’ve seen fire alarm systems that are 30-years-old and don’t have displays on them. The alarm’s going off and we don’t know why,” he says. “One of our frustrations is that every system is different.”
Dealing with loud alarms is just one of the many challenges firefighters face each time they respond to a call. Let’s explore some other common grievances and how they can be rectified.
Problem: In addition to their loudness, old systems can also be labeled incorrectly, something that impedes investigations.
“Some will have things written down on them—like Zone 1, 5 and 8—but we have no idea what those mean,” Racho says, “so we have to search throughout the building to find the event regardless.”
Solution: With nearly 50 years of firefighting under his belt in California, Idaho, Missouri and Arkansas, Phil Johnston is in a position to offer advice on how to eliminate this kind of problem. By simply providing individual labels, legends or other appropriate markings that immediately show the areas and zones protected by the system, alarm activation can be quickly matched to the source.
Problem: Fire alarms may be prevalent, but 99.99 percent of the time, they are nuisance alarms that aren’t real, according to Gary Watlington of FireProof Safety Solutions.
“But we still have to respond,” he says, because you never know when someone’s life might be at risk.
Alarm systems are becoming increasingly affordable and, as such, continually installed. More alarms, however, mean more false alarms. Whenever an alarm sounds, firefighters have to check it out and ensure the scene is secure. In the case of false alarms, that means that fire engines and manpower are tied up elsewhere and those resources can’t be directed toward other concurrent emergencies.
Solution: The good news is false alarms can be prevented easily. Some owners figure that once a fire alarm is installed, the job is done. But like any other piece of technology, they need to be maintained.
“Provide preventative maintenance on a scheduled basis by trained and licensed personnel and your system will have a much greater chance of functioning properly,” Johnston says.
Watlington adds that business owners should have their systems inspected, tested and maintained on a yearly basis to ensure that wiring and devices are kept up to date. Additionally, since false alarms are usually smoke-related, owners should keep in mind that if construction projects are going on that produce dust or particles, there’s a chance an alarm can be falsely activated. Individuals should take precaution to disable the alarm temporarily by contacting the alarm system service company.
The Uninformed Owner
Problem: While Racho, Johnston and Watlington agree that legacy fire alarms preclude firefighters from completing their jobs, there are also problems relating to apathetic, uneducated property owners and landlords. After all, how many owners actually think their apartment complexes, strip malls or office buildings will go up in flames?
“It’s very frustrating when we get there and people have already reset their alarms,” Racho says. “We need to know what detector went off to make sure everything’s okay.”
Solution: All of these apathy-related problems can be easily remedied through education.
“The majority of people simply don’t understand how fast fires develop and spread,” Watlington says. “Fires can develop in any room and in today’s home and business construction, once a fire is detected, there can be as little as one to two minutes to safely escape the hazardous environment.”
While commercial property owners don’t want to be inconvenienced, it’s important to remember why alarms exist in the first place: to protect building occupants. Because of that, the technology shouldn’t be neglected. Forward-thinking owners should spend time getting to know their systems by reading the manuals and writing down their codes.
These individuals also need to remember something that might seem like a no-brainer: When the fire alarm sounds off, it means you’ve got to get out of the building. Should that happen, it’s important to wait until the fire department arrives to reset the alarm.
What’s your pet peeve? Sound off on your biggest frustration when dealing with fire alarm systems…