Residential Fire Alarm Systems: The Verification and Response Dilemma

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By Peter J. Finley, Jr.

Over the past decade, the Vineland, New Jersey, Fire Department, like most fire departments has experienced a significant increase in the number of responses to automatic fire alarm systems, especially systems located in one and two family dwellings. Responses to residential alarm systems increased dramatically in mid 1998, when the City Council approved local amendments to the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code, one of which prohibited verification of residential fire alarms prior to notification of the fire department. The practical effect of this action was to eliminate the exception to immediate notification of the fire department from household fire warning equipment, found in chapter 2-4.9.2 of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, 1996 edition.

Being a combination fire department, this increase in responses eventually began to take a toll on the department's volunteers, some of whose companies were responding to more than 400 incidents per year. As a result, the city administration began to reconsider the prohibition on alarm verification. They also began to explore other solutions to the problem such as implementing some type of fines and/or penalties for repeat false and/or nuisance alarms.

The senior staff of the fire department acknowledged that the growing number of alarm responses was a problem, however, they were opposed to allowing verification since they felt that this may compromise public safety. It was their belief that all other avenues should be explored, and, options exhausted, prior to permitting any verification of residential fire alarm systems.

The problem, which prompted this research, was a significant increase in the number of responses, being made by the department, to automatic fire alarm systems originating from one and two family dwellings. While accurate statistics are not available, very few of these alarm activations were caused by uncontrolled fire situations.

The purpose of this research was four fold. The first objective was to evaluate how other fire departments, serving communities that are similar in size to Vineland, are handling the issue of verification and response to residential fire alarm systems. The second objective was to determine if the department opted to permit verification of these alarms, would residents' insurance rates, or, the city's ISO rating be affected. The third objective was to obtain input from homeowners, the taxpaying customers of the department, who had experienced an alarm activation(s), that resulted in a response by the department, regarding how they felt about the issue of alarm verification. The final objective was to determine how the NFPA arrived at the exemption found in NFPA 72, that permits verification, only of residential fire alarms. The evaluative and historical research methods were utilized. The following research questions were posed:

  1. What are the primary causes of residential fire alarm activations, and, what percentage of time does the fire department provide some type of service at these incidents?
  2. How many fire departments, which serve communities similar in size to Vineland, permit verification of residential fire alarm systems, prior to dispatch of the fire department?
  3. How do fire departments, serving communities similar in size to Vineland, view the potential conflicting liabilities associated with responding to, or not responding to, activations of residential fire alarm systems?
  4. How do fire departments, serving communities similar in size to Vineland, respond to activations of residential fire alarm systems?
  5. How do fire departments, serving communities similar in size to Vineland, deal with repeat false alarm offenders?
  6. Do most homeowners who experience a fire alarm activation, try to stop the response of the fire department, and, if so, why?
  7. If the fire department adopted a limited response policy, would homeowners be more receptive to response by the fire department to all alarm activations?
  8. Do homeowners feel differently about verification of residential fire alarms if they have children who stay home alone?
  9. Are insurance rates affected in any way by the verification and response policies of the fire department?
  10. Since residential fires still account for nearly 70 percent of all fires, and, a similar percentage of fire injuries and deaths, why are residential fire alarms the only alarms that can be verified according to NFPA Standard?

An extensive review of pertinent literature was conducted to determine what had already been written on the various issues related to this subject. Two survey instruments were developed to gather information from fire departments, and, homeowners, on the subject of residential fire alarms. The first survey was developed to determine the verification and response policies of fire departments, in the United States, that serve communities that are similar in population to Vineland. This survey was mailed to the fire department in every city with a population between 47,000 and 67,000, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Of the 203 surveys mailed to departments in 43 states, two were returned as being undeliverable, while 81 were completed and returned by fire departments. Of these, 67 were evaluated for this paper. The survey indicated that 77.6 percent of the fire departments that answered the question, do not permit verification of residential fire alarms prior to response, and of those, 60 percent enforce this prohibition through a fire department policy. Nearly two thirds of the departments surveyed (61.9 percent), felt that allowing untrained civilians to decide if they had a problem when their alarm system activated presented a greater liability than placing apparatus and personnel on the street for every alarm, even those that may be false. More than 93 percent of the fire departments responded that protection of property, and, minimizing property damage were both important functions of alarm systems.

On the issue of normal apparatus response to residential fire alarms, 41.8 percent of departments dispatch two engines, one ladder and one chief, while 19.4 percent dispatched only a single engine company. Most fire departments, 64.6 percent, have all units respond at emergency speed, that is with lights and sirens, although 27.7 percent have the first engine respond at emergency speed, and, all other units respond at reduced speed, that is no lights or sirens. When additional information is received subsequent to dispatch, that the alarm may be false, or, was activated accidentally, 87.5 percent of departments modify their response. Of these, 57.1 percent return all units except the first due engine.

Most fire departments surveyed, 64.2 percent, attempt to educate homeowners regarding detector placement, system maintenance, etc., if they believe that repeat false alarms are becoming a problem. About one in four departments (25.4 percent), issue citations or violation notices under the local fire code, and, 31.3 percent issue fines or penalties if necessary. Of 30 departments that report that they issue fines or penalties after a predetermined number of false alarms, 43.3 percent do so after three in a twelve-month period.

A second survey instrument was developed to obtain input from homeowners in the City of Vineland who had experienced a fire alarm activation that had resulted in a response by the fire department. A total of 101 surveys were mailed out to homeowners who accounted for 175 total responses by the fire department in the previous 12-month period. Of these, four were returned as being undeliverable, and, 53 were completed and returned by the homeowners, all of which were utilized for this research.

An overwhelming majority of respondents, 84.3 percent, tried to stop the response of the fire department when their alarm activated. Nearly two thirds of those surveyed, 64.2 percent, reported that the fire department provided no tangible service when they responded. However, when presented with a list of potential services that the fire department could provide, more than half (52.1 percent) of those who answered the question, stated they would want the fire department to respond to make sure that everything was OK. An even greater number of respondents, 68.8 percent, stated that they would want the fire department to respond to make sure that everything was OK, if they responded with one engine with no lights or sirens. More than three quarters (76.2 percent) of those who responded, answered that they would not want their children, who stay home alone, to be able to cancel a response by the fire department, if their alarm activated.

The research also found that insurance companies generally provide a discount on homeowners' insurance policies for a monitored fire alarm system. However, the discount is not affected by the verification or response policies of the fire department that serves the residence. The Insurance Services Office (ISO) also does not prohibit fire departments from verifying residential fire alarms prior to response. They do, however, require response of at least two engines, and, one ladder or service truck, to all structural incidents, including fire alarm activations. Therefore, the response policies and procedures of the fire department can have a significant impact on the credit earned, for engines and ladders, during an ISO evaluation, and, ultimately affect the community's overall ISO rating.

Recommendations made to the Vineland Fire Department, and, the City of Vineland include the implementation of a comprehensive, multi-faceted program to address the overall issue of residential fire alarms, not just one small component that will make the problem go away. These recommendations include an aggressive public education campaign targeted to encourage homeowners to maintain their systems; requirements for comprehensive plan review, and system inspection, testing, and approval prior to new systems being placed on line; registration, servicing and upgrading requirements for existing systems; and, adoption of an ordinance to assess fines or penalties for repeat false, or, nuisance alarms. The recommendation was also made that until the effectiveness of the other program components can be evaluated, that the Fire department should continue to prohibit verification of these alarms. The final recommendation was for the city to respond to these activations with two engines and one ladder to satisfy the requirements of ISO. These responses should be primarily made in a reduced speed mode. The Department's SOP on response to automatic fire alarms should be modified to reflect these changes as well.