OFM - 04-88-13
Responses to Building Alarm Activations
Public Fire Safety Guidelines
Responses to Building Alarm Activations
The material in this guideline has been developed to assist municipalities in making informed decisions regarding appropriate response levels to building alarm activations. Building alarm activations include activations of fire alarm systems smoke alarms, sprinkler systems and other automatic detection/suppression systems or devices.
Many municipalities are concerned about the high number of false alarms originating from accidental or malicious building alarm activations and the impact that responses to these calls have on fire department resources. A few municipalities have reacted by implementing a reduced response protocol resulting in fewer firefighters and apparatus initially being dispatched to these scenes. For the purposes of establishing fire department response levels, responses to building alarm activations should be treated no differently than responses to reports of fire coming in verbally, via telephone or through 911.
Generally speaking, the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) does not recommend reduced emergency responses to building alarm activations. Municipal councils and fire departments should fully analyze the associated risks of a reduced response before altering normal emergency response protocols. The analysis should consider the probability and impact of a real fire occurrence in each type of occupancy and should ensure that any reductions in the initial response levels do not adversely impact the ability to effectively intervene should the building alarm activation prove to be an actual emergency situation.
Reduced Response Exclusions
Some buildings in a community typically require more firefighting resources because of the vulnerability of occupants, or the nature of the processes or degree of hazard contained within the building. A reduced level of response to these occupancies should never be considered. Some examples include:
- Long term care facilities;
Schools during school hours;
- High rise residential buildings;
- Large assembly occupancies;
- High hazard industries; and
- Other high risk buildings.
Note: More complex fire risks such as those listed above typically require additional resources than the ten firefighters expected for single-family dwelling fires in the Emergency Response Staffing Guideline 04-08-12 (Rescind date is Nov 10, 2010).
Reduced Response Considerations
Reduced responses introduce a number of risks to municipal fire departments including the following:
- If the building alarm activation proves to be a fire situation, timely rescue and suppression will be compromised with an initial response involving fewer firefighters and apparatus.
- Reducing the number of responding firefighters is an unsafe practice when additional firefighters are not en route or being staged at a fire station. The availability of firefighters, depending on the nature of the fire protection delivery system (full time, composite or volunteer) affects the level of risk.
- If the building alarm activation proves to be a fire situation, firefighter and occupant safety may be jeopardized.
- Delayed response times and reduced staffing may not meet the expectations of occupants, owners, or municipal council and this has the potential to introduce legal liability issues.
Fire departments considering the implementation of a reduced response protocol are strongly advised to:
Undertake a risk assessment of each property, taking into consideration factors such as the type of occupancy, building occupants, presence/absence of sprinklers.
- Undertake a fire safety inspection to ensure that the building is in compliance with the Fire Code.
- Ensure that each building has an approved fire safety plan.
- Ensure that supervisory staff members are trained in the implementation of the fire safety plan.
- Notify residents and building owners of the reduced response protocol being considered for their building.
- Obtain legal advice prior to implementing a reduced response protocol.
- Notify municipal council of any proposed reduced response protocols to building alarm activations.
Strategies to Address False Alarms
Some fire departments treat building alarm activations as probable false alarms. However, presuming that any alarm activation is false when there is no history of false alarm problems in a building is not appropriate. In buildings where there are concerns regarding excessive false alarms, several strategies can be considered to reduce the number of false calls.
Where fire alarm systems have manual pull stations that are subject to frequent accidental or intentional activation, provisions can be made to relocate or cover the applicable pull stations with a false alarm prevention device designed to lessen false alarms. Modifications of this nature must comply with Article 188.8.131.52 of the Fire Code. Advice may be obtained from the OFM prior to the fire department permitting the moving or covering of pull stations. Improvements to building security, such as the installation of security cameras, may also reduce malicious false alarms.
Fire alarm systems are to be maintained in accordance with the Ontario Fire Code Section 6.3 Fire Alarm and Voice Communication Systems for Life Safety. In some instances, false alarms may be due to the inappropriate placement of detection devices. In other cases, false calls may be due to malfunctioning alarm systems. The Ontario Fire Code addresses this situation and building owners or managers may be charged for not making the necessary repairs to the system to ensure that it is maintained in operating condition.
Fee for Service:
Many communities have adopted a fee for service policy where the department responds to 2 or 3 false alarms within a specified timeframe, advises the owner or manager of the situation and then bills the owner for any subsequent responses. This can be effective although there are risks associated with implementing a fee for service policy such as potential delays in fire department notification. Fire departments should consult with their municipal legal adviser to develop an appropriate by-law.
Approved Fire Safety Plans:
Fire departments should take steps to ensure that approved fire safety plans are in place. Fire departments are also encouraged to pre-plan emergency responses to buildings.
Reduced Response Implementation
After implementing strategies to address false alarms, considering the risks associated with the property in question, allowing for local circumstances and taking into account the considerations listed in this guideline, fire departments may choose to implement a reduced response as a temporary measure until the false alarm issue has been successfully resolved. If so, it is recommended that:
- Where there are on scene supervisory staff, they must notify the fire department about the incident in a manner that is consistent with the approved fire safety plan.
- Supervisory staff should not delay initially notifying the fire department in order to verify the fire. Staff may verify the alarm but only after initial notification.
- Based on occupancy type and risk, the fire chief should pre-determine the resources that would be required to perform critical tasks upon initial arrival and ensure that, at a minimum, these resources are dispatched immediately. Provisions should be made to ensure that additional firefighters are readily available to support the initial response in a timely manner.
Codes, Standards and Best Practices:
Codes, Standards and Best Practices resources available to assist in establishing local policy on this assessment are listed below. All are available at http://www.mcscs.jus.gov.on.ca/ . Please feel free to copy and distribute this document. We ask that the document not be altered in any way, that the Office of the Fire Marshal be credited and that the documents be used for non-commercial purposes only.
Fire Ground Staffing And Delivery Systems Within A Comprehensive Fire Safety Effectiveness Model, Office of the Fire Marshal of Ontario, December 1993
• PFSG 04-01-12 Selecting Fire Suppression Capability
• PFSG 04-02-01 Service Delivery Considerations
• PFSG 04-03-12 Service Providers
• PFSG 04-03A-12 Service Providers – Volunteer Staffing
• PFSG 04-08-12 Staffing – Single Family Dwellings
• PFSG 04-13-12 Basic Structural Fire Fighting (No Expected Rescue Component)
False Fire Calls in Ontario: A Statistical Overview
Verification of Fire Calls
In Ontario, it is recognized that a delayed alarm to a fire department can have serious consequences compromising both occupant and firefighter safety during a building fire emergency. The importance of a prompt fire department response to building alarm activations is reinforced through Building Code requirements. Central stations are prohibited from verifying fire alarms in buildings that are required by code to have monitored systems. The standard referenced by the Ontario Building Code requires central stations to immediately transmit fire alarm signals to the local fire department1. The standard used by ULC to list central stations not only stipulates that the fire signal receiving centre must immediately retransmit the alarm, but also prohibits alarm verification unless approved by the authority having jurisdiction2.
NFPA 72 also recognizes the significance of a quick fire department response to building alarm activations. Central stations are prohibited from verifying alarms and are required to retransmit signals to fire departments within a specific timeframe3. Fire alarm verification is only permitted under restricted circumstances and only if the specified timeframe for retransmission of the alarm is not exceeded.
When fire departments choose to implement a reduced response protocol to building alarm activations for the purposes of verifying a fire call, they risk losing the opportunity to promptly intervene in the event of a fire emergency thereby defeating the purpose of the Building Code requirements. As a result, the most vulnerable and high risk occupancies that are required by code to have monitored fire alarm systems are subsequently at even higher risk.
1. ULC/ORD-C693-1994 Central Station Fire Protective Signaling Systems and Services (currently referenced by the Ontario Building Code)
8.4.1. Alarm signals initiated by manual fire alarm stations, automatic fire detectors, waterflow from the automatic sprinkler system, or actuation of other fire suppression systems or equipment shall be treated as fire alarms. The central station shall:
A. Immediately retransmit the alarm to the public fire service communication centre;
2. CAN/ULC-S561-03 Installation and Services for Fire Signal Receiving Centres and Systems (used by ULC for certifying monitoring agencies)
184.108.40.206.1 Alarm signals, received by the fire signal receiving centre from the fire alarm control unit or the extinguishing system at the protected premises shall be treated as fire alarms and the fire signal receiving centre shall:
A. Contact the appropriate public fire service communication centre within a maximum of 30 s of the receipt of the signal. Unless authorized in writing by the authority having jurisdiction there shall be no premises verification of the fire alarm signal;
3. NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm Code 2002 Edition
220.127.116.11.1. Alarm signals initiated by manual fire alarm boxes, automatic fire detectors, waterflow from the automatic sprinkler system, or actuation of other fire suppression system(s) or equipment shall be treated as fire alarms.
18.104.22.168.2. The central station shall perform the following actions:
(1) Immediately retransmit the alarm to the public fire service communications center
A.22.214.171.124.2(1) The term immediately in this context is intended to mean “without unreasonable delay”. Routine handling should take a maximum of 90 seconds from receipt of an alarm signal by the central station until the initiation of retransmission to the public fire service communications center.
126.96.36.199. Remote monitoring locations shall be permitted to verify alarm signals prior to reporting them to the fire service provided that the verification process does not delay the reporting by more than 90 seconds. (for “Single- and Multiple-Station Alarms and Household Fire Alarm Systems” only).