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Automatic Fire Alarm or Is It? Part II

By Henry Campbell, Senior Correspondent | June 01, 2017 | NATIONAL

Story No. 042017119

I wish to stress to the younger members of the fire service that all AFA’s are not necessarily false alarms; many of the residential alarms are caused by cooking, including smoke from food burning in unattended pots and pans, smoking grease from a previous spill in the oven, or even the proverbial popcorn in the microwave oven to name a few.

Unattended cooking, where the occupant has forgotten that they have “something on the stove,” or may have even left the home, all tend to cause activation of the alarm system and bring about a fire department response. Now, what if we didn’t respond on these seemingly minor incidents; there will always exist the possibility of fire and fire extension. It makes the job of firefighting much safer when we respond and nip any fire in the bud, before it can extend. How often have you responded to a full blown kitchen fire that started from unattended cooking?

The original AFA system is the automatic fire sprinkler system found in many commercial buildings, dating back to the early 20th century. They also caused the transmission of many unnecessary fire alarms, mostly from a surge in the water supply tripping the valve seat and causing an alarm. Automatic fire sprinkler systems have been around for a hundred years waiting to do their job by extinguishing an incipient fire before it gets out of control, and for the most part, they have been very successful in doing their job.

Today, we have the more elaborate computer based alarm systems standing by, waiting to do their job. Control panels can be fairly simple for a private home and much more complex for multiple residences, high rise buildings, institutional facilities and commercial establishments. The control panels can be programmed to do just about anything once an alarm has been activated. They can be programmed to close doors, to open or close control devices and turn on or off specific items.

Manual pull stations can be connected to the system, as can be with water flow in sprinklers systems. The control panels also have fault detectors built in to enable locating problems within the system. Also, in newly constructed buildings or where AFA systems have been installed in older buildings, there is usually a period within the first 2-4 months of operation where the system requires some fine tuning to prevent unnecessary alarm transmissions. Surely there are many alarm transmissions that the firefighter might call nuisance alarms, false alarms, or system malfunctions, but if there is any blame or reason for the alarm transmission, it falls on the owners of the building, not the AFA system which requires annual maintenance and upkeep.

With the annual increase in AFA dispatches, will the fire service change how it will respond to AFA’s? Do we respond or not? No matter how trivial the alarm may seem, it may be far worse if you don’t respond. What do you do when the dispatcher transmits additional information from the alarm company or occupant, reporting that there is no fire and no need for the fire department to respond? What will the future hold in these situations, as more and more occupancies install automatic fire alarm systems. Will there be changes in how fire departments respond to AFA alarms? Will there be a change when additional information is obtained by the department? How will reductions in staffing levels in both career and volunteer departments impact your department's response?

What is your present response to AFA’s? A chief’s vehicle? One engine? One engine and a ladder company, or a standard full assignment? It is your call. Do you go full lights and siren? Or in a reduced response mode, such as Code 1, maybe the first-due company goes Code 3 and the remaining assignment goes Code 1, if at all?

There may be unnecessary alarms generated by the AFA system, but they certainly generate an equal number of legitimate alarms. Early detection of fire saves lives and property, including the lives of firefighters.

Till Next Time, Stay Safe and God Bless!

This article is a direct street report from our correspondent and has not been edited by the 1st Responder newsroom.