When your fire protection system is working as it should, you should only have to think about it when inspection time rolls around.
But when it’s not working correctly, you may experience one or more false alarms or worse, a system activation.
Nobody likes nuisance alarms or unwanted system activations. One easy way to make them less likely? Stick to a regular inspection and maintenance schedule.
But preventing all unwanted alarms and system activations is harder because there are a myriad of reasons systems can be triggered.
If you’re looking for help with a faulty system or too many unwanted alarms, give us a call. We can help.
Read on to learn what you or your fire protection service provider can do to minimize the risk of unwanted alarms and activations. Although the industry has moved away from calling these alarms “false alarms,” for the purpose of this article, we are using false alarms, unwanted alarms and nuisance alarms interchangeably.
Unwanted Alarms and System Activations are Serious Problems
Before we get into the various issues that can cause false alarms and activations, it’s important that we look at why preventing them is so important.
Nuisance alarms and unwanted activations can be harmful to businesses and occupants and may have consequences that aren’t immediately obvious. We’ve listed the 4 biggest problems below.
Let’s take a look—
1. Unwanted alarms occupy resources.
First, they can burden or tie up the limited personnel and resources of emergency services that must investigate and, while doing so, may not be able to respond to actual emergencies that arise.
Fire departments across the U.S. respond to more than two million false alarms each year — much more than the total number of fires.
Whether these calls are the result of accidental triggering of a system or a prank makes no difference. Money and time are both wasted in the end to investigate these calls.
2. They desensitize people.
Second, people often become desensitized to fire alarms when they hear them go off frequently.
Nuisance alarms can seriously affect the responsiveness of a building’s occupants, creating a situation where people don’t evacuate when there’s a real emergency.
3. False alarms cost owners.
Third, false alarms may cost you.
In addition to the obvious business interruption, some cities have instituted a fee that building owners must pay when emergency services investigate a false alarm. Repeated false alarms could cause building owners to lose tenants.
The good news is that these fees tend to reduce the number of false alarms, ensuring that firefighters and other emergency services personnel are available when needed.
The bad news is that you will pay the fee whether your alarm was triggered accidentally or on purpose.
4. Unwanted activations cost owners even more.
And fourth, unwanted activations of a fire suppression system will definitely cost you.
In addition to downtime, unwanted activation of a water-based system can cause significant water damage. For special hazard systems, there is the cost of recharging the system.
Clearly, preventing false alarms and unwanted system activations is a smart move. There are steps you can take yourself to ensure your system only goes off when there’s an actual emergency, but be aware there are some preventative measures only a qualified fire protection system technician will be able to handle.
Unwanted System Activations are Uncommon
The good news is that systems are very dependable, and fire suppression systems seldom just go off without a reason.
Assuming you’re inspecting and maintaining your system, you probably don’t have to worry about unexpected accidental activation.
What you can’t hedge against is human error. Below, we’ll share not just the causes of false alarms and unwanted activations, but also how you can prevent them.
Common Causes of False Alarms
Many things can cause false alarms — most of which are preventable.
Understanding the common causes of false alarms and unwanted activations may help building owners to take steps to prevent them from happening in the future.
Our technicians have compiled a list of common fire alarm
and fire suppression activations from our years of experience in the field:
1. Failure to put your system on test mode before work is done at your facility that could create an alarm condition.
2. Turning on HVAC systems for the first time of the season
(heat in the fall, air conditioning in the spring).
3. Improper placement of the smoke detector. For
example, a smoke detector is located too close to a
4. Dirt or dust in the components. Failure to properly
5. Component failure (especially in older systems).
6. Incorrect detector choice for the location.
7. Environmental factors like water and lightning strikes.
8. Rodents chewing on wiring.
Common Causes of False System Activation
While unwanted system activations are much rarer than false alarms, they can and do still happen.
Some of the most common causes of false activations of fire suppression systems include:
1. Exhaust fan and filter issues. False activation of kitchen suppression systems can be caused by failure to turn on exhaust fans.
2. Incorrect placement or mislabeling of the fire suppression manual pull stations.
3. Carelessness during maintenance or cleaning.
4. Accidental activation by occupants.
5. Leaking pipes, pipes freezing and air leaks for wet, dry, and pre-action sprinkler systems.
6. Power surges.
7. Environmental factors. For example a pull station or other system component getting wet or a UV/IR detector activating due to a light condition.
17 Ways to Prevent False Alarms & Activations
As noted above, the simplest way to prevent false alarms and unwanted activations is to inspect your system regularly and perform the necessary maintenance.
When known mechanical problems do arise, be sure to address them quickly. Make sure your staff is properly trained on how each system operates and how to identify issues with your system.
Here are 10 things you can do to prevent nuisance alarms and unwanted activations of your system, plus 7 bonus tips below:
1. Avoid accidental activation.
Make sure manual pull stations are clearly labeled and are located where there is no chance they’ll be accidentally pulled. Install plastic covers to prevent tampering.
2. Make sure exhaust fans are functioning and being used properly.
Removing filters from exhaust fans can expose fusible links to heat and/or grease, causing false alarms. Make sure fans are always running while you are cooking.
3. Be sure the right people are inspecting and maintaining your system.
Do the fire protection system technicians who perform inspections and maintenance in your building have the training required to service your system? An inexperienced tech may miss a critical issue in your system or even trigger it during a visit.
4. Double check your system for potential issues.
Is the smoke detector too close to returns on your HVAC system? What about smoke detectors too close to the laundry room? Is a manual pull station located too close to a bay door that is open when it is raining? While these components may have been properly installed, environmental factors can result in false alarms and cause unwanted fire suppression system activations. Be proactive in identifying potential issues.
5. Install surge protectors in your system.
Power surges can trigger false activation and damage to electrical components. While there is not a whole lot you can do about lightning strikes, if you are in a high-risk area, where lightning strikes are more likely, consider adding additional surge protection to your panel.
6. Be proactive about preventing malicious activation.
Installing security cameras and pull station covers will usually deter pranksters who might otherwise set off your system just for the thrill.
7. Don’t let dust build up on detectors.
While regular inspections should reveal if there is a build up of dust or dirt on system components, especially dusty work can cause a system-triggering build up quickly.
There are temporary covers you can put on detectors while work is being done, but anyone working in the area will need to be briefed on how to activate the fire alarm system in the case of an emergency. In addition, a fire watch will need to be put in place and the local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) should be notified of the impairment to the system.
8. Only cook in designated areas with appropriate systems.
Make sure these areas have operating exhaust systems and a fire suppression system, as required by code.
Even a simple toaster can trigger false alarms, so think carefully about where any staff amenities that involve cooking are placed.
9. Install adequate ventilation.
Ventilate shower rooms and laundry rooms to make sure that industrial spaces where steam is a byproduct of manufacturing processes have the right kind of detectors installed.
A qualified fire protection system technician will be able to tell you what types are appropriate in what spaces.
10. Allow smoking only in designated locations.
People still smoke? Smoke from cigarettes and cigars can set off smoke detectors (though they won’t trigger sprinkler systems), so make sure that the appropriate detectors are installed anywhere people will be smoking.
Bonus — 7 more false alarm prevention tips
11. Remind staff that aerosol sprays can set off smoke detectors.
Ideally, people won’t use sprays near detectors but when it’s unavoidable, look into non-aerosol equivalents.
This includes deodorant and hairspray, which many people forget.
12. Inform remote alarm monitoring center.
Always tell your remote alarm monitoring company when you are performing work in your building or testing of your system is taking place.
Otherwise, work on the system could result in a visit from emergency services and real emergencies may be mistaken for false alarms.
13. Be careful during cleaning.
Some industrial cleaning processes involve large scale cleaning with power washers and other equipment. Water and electricity don’t mix.
14. Use protective cages.
Putting protective cages around sprinklers and other exposed components of fire suppression systems in high risk or heavy traffic areas can help protect these components from impact damage that could trigger the system. Show staff where sprinklers and other fire suppression system components are, so they can avoid damaging them while doing normal work.
15. Use temperature monitors.
Install temperature monitors if there is a chance that the temperature inside your building could drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That way, you can respond before the pipes freeze and trigger the system.
16. Pay attention to your system in-between regular service intervals.
Did you know that some fire protection systems require weekly, monthly, quarterly and semi-annual tasks performed by the building owner? An example of these tasks includes draining low-point drains on dry systems during the winter months and weekly fire pump churn tests. You should familiarize yourself with these system-specific requirements. Your fire protection contractor should be able to help you with this.
17. Hire a professional!
Make sure all repairs, maintenance, and changes to your systems, as well as the installation of any new components, are handled by a qualified fire system professional.
Clearly, there are a lot of reasons systems are triggered when there’s no fire emergency, but there are just as many simple steps you can take to prevent false alarms and system activations.
Again, regular inspections and maintenance are the most important things you can do to prevent your system from being triggered.
But if you’re still experiencing false alarm and false system activations, you need to contact a professional fire alarm system or fire suppression system professional to determine what’s causing the problem.