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What are Fire Department Responsibilities

Combination Residential Security and Fire Alarm Systems

By Paul Dove

I read a very interesting article in the Las Vegas Sun recently, written by Mike Trask of the Las Vegas Sun.  The article reports on a new policy the Henderson FD has initiated, where they will no longer respond to residential fire alarms unless a secondary means of verification is reported, witnessed or a water-flow device has been activated.

This type of policy should not be a total surprise or earth-shaking news to many fire departments around the country.  The Henderson Fire Department seems to be following a growing trend where many departments around the country are exploring data, developing modified concepts or have initiated similar policies.  The Henderson FD is not alone in this practice in the Metro Las Vegas area. The article states that the Las Vegas Fire and Rescue Department adopted a similar policy back in 2003.

As a fire prevention and investigation specialist, I can fully understand the position that fire departments are taking as they study data and document false alarm responses, they contemplate their own evaluations of risk and use of personnel and equipment hours devoted to responding to these types of calls for service.  It is true that many departments around the country face a similar degree of difficulty while trying to balance or weigh decisions to establish similar policies.

This commentary is not intended to defend any one position since I believe the public has a right to expect the best level of service in a time of need.  I also believe fire departments have a right to minimize their risk to responding personnel and the public they serve, in addition to lowering tax payer monies spent responding to situations where services are not needed. This is especially true in these times of economic short falls, station closings and layoffs.

The difficult question the fire service should ask is, how can we give the public the service they expect and deserve while minimizing the department’s exposure risks and financial loss?

I will elaborate on this question further in this commentary but first, I would like to elaborate on fire alarm and detection and its historic relationship with residential security systems.  Historically, fire alarm and detection devices have been viewed as supplemental attachments to residential security systems.  Presently, security systems are un-regulated but separate national standards are currently being developed on security systems and those systems with combination fire alarm warning device attachments.

NFPA 72The standard residential security system will typically house security devices such as, motion detectors, glass and door breaks, thermal sensors and laser beam detection. On  combination security and fire alarm type systems, there may be a couple of supervised smoke detectors.  Should we in the fire service interpret the addition of a few smoke detectors as meeting the legal regulations or definitions of a household fire alarm system?  I believe the answer is, “no”.  Unfortunately, an existing majority of combination system installations do not  meet specific fire alarm code requirements for household fire alarm systems. The National Fire Alarm Code referenced by all building and fire codes has specific requirements for the installation of household fire warning equipment which does not eliminate the installed equipment from the requirements for installation, operation, testing, service and maintenance. On occasion, jurisdictions may modify specific code requirements through ordinance development but the code is still the code:

NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm Code® 2007 Edition

Chapter 11 Single- and Multiple-Station Alarms and Household Fire Alarm Systems

11.3 Basic Requirements.

11.3.1  All devices, combinations of devices, and equipment to be installed in conformity with this chapter shall be approved or listed for the purposes for which they are intended.

11.3.3*  The installation of smoke alarms or fire alarm systems or combinations of these shall comply with the requirements of this chapter and shall satisfy the minimum requirements for number and location of smoke alarms or smoke detectors by one of the following arrangements:

(1) The required minimum number and location of smoke detection devices shall be satisfied (independently) through the installation of smoke alarms. The installation of additional smoke alarms shall be permitted. The installation of additional system-based smoke detectors including partial or complete duplication of the smoke alarms satisfying the required minimum shall be permitted.

(2) The required minimum number and location of smoke detection devices shall be satisfied (independently) through the installation of system smoke detectors. The installation of additional smoke detectors shall be permitted. The installation of additional smoke alarms including partial or complete duplication of the smoke detectors satisfying the required minimum shall be permitted.

11.4.3* Equipment. The performance of fire-warning equipment discussed in this chapter shall depend on such equipment being properly selected, installed, operated, tested, and maintained in accordance with the provisions of this Code and with the manufacturer’s published instructions provided with the equipment.

A.11.3.3  This Code establishes minimum standards for the use of fire-warning equipment. The use of additional alarms or detectors over and above the minimum standard is encouraged. The use of additional devices can result in a combination of equipment (e.g., a combination of single- and multiple-station alarms or a combination of smoke alarms or smoke detectors that are part of a security/fire system and existing multiple-station alarms). Though a combination is allowed, one type of equipment must independently meet the requirements of the Code. Compliance with the requirements of the Code cannot rely on the combination of the following fire-warning equipment:

(1) Single-station alarms
(2) Multiple-station alarms
(3) Household fire alarm system (includes a security/fire system with smoke alarms or
smoke detectors)

It is encouraged that the highest level of protection be used where possible. For example, if multiple-station alarms are added to an occupancy with compliant single-station alarms, the multiple-station alarms should be installed to replace all of the single-station alarms. Similarly, if a monitored household fire alarm system is added to a house that has compliant multiple-station alarms, monitored smoke alarms or smoke detectors should be installed to replace the multiple-station alarms or be installed to provide the same required coverage.

11.10 Maintenance and Tests.
Fire-warning equipment shall be maintained and tested in accordance with the manufacturer’s published instructions and per the requirements of Chapter 10.

Typically, security alarm monitoring facilities monitor combination security and fire alarm systems for alarm device initiation signals.  Once received, their standard operational practices are to contact the homeowner first and then contact emergency services.  In the event the facility does not make contact with the homeowner or secondary contact person, they initiate the dispatching of the appropriate agency; either police departments for security device activations, or fire departments for fire detection devices.

Situations found in most false fire alarm calls with these types of combination systems are either non-fire human cooking errors or device errors caused by poor installation, improper device selection, incorrect location and/or lack of maintenance on the fire alarm components.

We in the fire service should re-think and view these combination systems as fire alarm and detection systems with supplemental security device attachments.  We should then use the National Fire Alarm Code to confirm that the household fire alarm and warning equipment meet the intent of the code for installation, testing and maintenance. In new construction, this can be done together with the local building departments to achieve compliance prior to occupancy.  In existing construction the fire service should promote or expand public education efforts to address problematic occupancies in their jurisdictions.

Where does this leave us in the fire service? Should we give up on residential fire detection technology by developing policies for non-response to dwelling fire alarms?  Again, I believe the answer should be, “no”.  Developing policies that leave the public with a feeling that we believe residential alarms are not valid unless there are other cues like smoke or flame showing is counter productive and further exposes us to risk.  Thankfully, not all fire service professionals believe residential false alarms are at the point where response should be compromised.

This brings me back to dealing with false alarms.  The fire service should take a pro-active role when encountering numerous false alarms at any location regardless of occupancy type.  We should thoroughly investigate events to figure out why an alarm is false, what or who is responsible and how can it be rectified.  This promotes greater customer service. We can create public educational programs to educate the public on fire alarm and detection technology. We can teach why it’s important for a homeowner to use the fire service expertise to make sure the proper devices are installed, inspected, tested and maintained in accordance with the National Fire Alarm Code.

The fire service and homeowners should not accept security company’s sales pitches selling combination systems with limited fire coverage. This allows the homeowner to have a false sense of security related to fire.  We should further utilize the National Fire Alarm Code as referenced by our building and fire codes for household fire alarm systems in residential dwellings.  In areas where limited fire service availability exists, we can promote residential self-inspection programs to empower and allow homeowners to partner with the fire service to minimize their exposure and risk to fire. We should hold installing contractors accountable for non-compliant installations of fire alarm and detection components, wiring and power supplies.  We could explore the possibility in creating partnerships with other code enforcement agencies or law enforcement to initially investigate residential fire alarm calls before rolling the trucks.  If we want to create policies regarding residential alarm response, maybe we should consider initially responding non-emergency to a call with a staff vehicle and step it up if a secondary cue is observed.  And only as a last resort when these and other possibilities are exhausted should we consider fines to homeowners and non-response policies.

Public education, customer service and using the National Fire Alarm Code may prove to be the successful counter measure in lowering household false fire alarm calls and assuring equipment is installed properly in all residences.

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