Automatic Fire Alarms (AFAs) can provide early warning in the event of fire. However, where they immediately send an automated signal or staff dial 999 just because an alarm is sounding (i.e., without investigating first) they are also the cause of false alarms, known as UnWanted Fire Signals (UWFS).

Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) is called around 2,000 times every year by automated signals, or by staff dialling 999 because an alarm is sounding, to non-sleeping risk premises. Over 99.5% of these calls are found to be a false alarm when fire engines arrive.

LFRS has to balance benefits against risk and continuing to send fire engines on an emergency call just because an alarm is sounding is not sustainable because unwanted fire signals:

  • Divert essential resources from genuine emergencies –our appliances must be available to save life.Two fire engines
  • Create avoidable road risk to both our crews and public whilst responding on blue lights.
  • Disrupt Community & Business Safety activities, increasing risk elsewhere.
  • Disrupt operational training, reducing the effectiveness of our teams.
  • Create avoidable environmental impact.
  • Drain public finances and resources.
  • Disempowers businesses from managing their own fire safety.
  • Diverts Fire Safety Inspectors, who follow up UWFS calls, away from inspecting high-risk premises.
  • Creates disruption for businesses employing On-Call Firefighters.
  • Ties up call handling resources in Fire Control potentially slowing reaction to genuine emergencies.

False alarm signals can cause loss of production and general disruption of normal business activities.

Every time the fire alarm sounds, your staff must stop what they are doing and evacuate the building.

Continual false alarms may lead to complacency and a lack of confidence in the system by your personnel, affecting their willingness to take action when the alarm activates.

The Impact of False Alarms

This video helps to explain the potential impact of false alarms on businesses like yours:

What Can Cause a False Alarm?

There are a number of common causes of unwanted fire signals. The table below offers advice on how to reduce them:

Common Causes of False Alarms and Reduction Advice 
  • Cooking fumes

Ensure that cooking is only permitted in designated locations which have appropriate detection (usually heat). Correct use of extractor fans and the closing of doors between designated cooking areas and detector heads can further prevent false alarms.

  • Burnt toast

Do not leave toast unattended and, if required, close doors and open windows to prevent actuation of a detector.  The use of toasters could be restricted to designated areas.

  • Steam (i.e. from shower rooms)

Ensure there is adequate ventilation in the shower room and keep doors to outer rooms closed. Sometimes signage can help guests/staff understand the need to close doors and take action to avoid build-up of excessive steam.

  • Smoking

Smoking should only be allowed in designated locations protected by appropriate detectors, i.e. which are designed to be suitable for the risk whilst not being susceptible to actuation from cigarette smoke.

  • Aerosol sprays

Where possible, you should prevent the use of aerosols in the vicinity of fire alarm detector heads. If this cannot be avoided, use of alternative products should be considered.

  • Contractors working on site

Contractors should be fully briefed on your fire safety arrangements, the location of fire detection systems, and the emergency plan applicable to their working location. Ensure that proper procedures are in place to control the nature of any work (e.g. hot-work permits) and ensure that you and your contractors clearly identify the areas in which the work can take place.  Temporary covers could be fitted to detectors in the area, or the zone isolated from the fire alarm system during the work period and control measures introduced.  These measures should be removed immediately after the activity has ended. Whilst detectors are covered in this way, staff working in the area (including contractors) should be briefed to activate a ‘break glass’ call point if they see a fire.

  • Accidental or malicious actuation of a ‘break glass’ call point

Consider protecting susceptible break glass call points with approved covers or guards and additional signage.  If required, consider the use of CCTV.

  • Testing or maintenance

Prior to commencing any testing or maintenance you must instruct your alarm centre to take your system ‘off watch’ for the duration of the activity.

  • Changes to the use, or practices within the building

Ensure the fire-detection system is appropriate for how the building is used.  Your risk assessment will need to be updated to reflect the changes.

Other general good practices that you can do to help to reduce the number of false fire alarms and unwanted fire signals at your workplace/business premises, include:

  • Appoint a responsible person, as per the requirements of the Fire Safety Order 2005, to ensure all matters relating to fire safety within the premises (including the fire alarm system) are adhered to.
  • Maintain the fire alarm system to ensure it is in good working order.
  • Ensure the alarm is appropriate to the risk.
  • Consider upgrading older systems. Money spent now could save money on lost business due to constant unwanted fire signals.
  • Ensure all relevant persons are made aware of the impact of unwanted fire signals – both on the business and on the fire and rescue service.
  • Consider implementing a delay in the system to allow for investigation. It is important you seek advice from your local Fire Safety department before you implement this though.
  • During the summer months consider fixing flea collars to specific detector heads that are known to be vulnerable to insect infiltration.

In all cases a fire risk assessment will need to be undertaken to ensure the safety of relevant persons. It is important to note that only competent or qualified persons should operate your fire alarm system, in accordance with BS 5839.

This National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) video explains how you can help to reduce false alarms in your workplace:

Links for further information:

Our Response to Automatic Fire Alarms

From 01 April 2022, our response to Automatic Fire Alarms (AFAs) is changing.