Why is my fire alarm going off?

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At one point or another, it is very likely that you might have experienced a false fire alarm, or worse and far more scary, a real alarm. So, let’s explore what might be causing these.

Main sources of false alarms: poor initial design and maintenance

Different to a routine check of your fire alarm system, which should take place every week, an alarm can be falsely triggered due to a number of reasons - here are 5 common examples:

  1. Wrong choice of technology:
    Optical technology is very efficient at detecting smoke from the early phase of a fire, but also unfortunately this can include any type of particles. A heat detector is very good at detecting a rapid rise in temperature. In a kitchen, cooking will generate a lot of airborne particles, so to minimise false alarms, you want to install a heat detector rather than an optical one instead.
  2. Poor positioning of the equipment:
    For example, installing a detector too close to the potential source of a trigger, such as above the door of a steamy bathroom. This could result in regular false alarms due to the steam.
  3. Worn out or used device:
    Call points that have seen their fair share of years might have a tendency to be set off too easily. This could even be because someone might’ve walked a little too close to it, barely making any contact with the device.
  4. Dirty detector:
    Even with detectors being positioned on a ceiling, they still get dirty over time and perhaps more so depending on the environment they’re in e.g. from dust or grease. The dirtier the detector is, the more sensitive it will be, and therefore prone to false events. For example, a detector unprotected during building renovation could mean recurring false alarms.
  5. External causes:
    And then we have reasons out of our hands, for example if a building experienced a leak with heavy rainfall, which might invade the detector and cause a false alarm.

Main sources of real fire in commercial buildings

Here are some examples of what may be causing a real fire and triggering an alarm - are they what you expected?

  • Cooking equipment and appliances: Ovens, fryers and hobs require lots of energy and are highly combustible.
  • Heating equipment: You’ve most definitely heard it before or seen it written on things such as electric heaters - “do not cover the heater” “do not place things over the heater” - we will never say it enough times!
  • Electrical and lighting equipment: Remember that power strip you left behind the fridge with all the appliances plugged into it? Well, it’s not very well ventilated and you are draining a maximum load of energy!
  • Smoking materials: Candles can do a lot of damage and quickly, too.
  • Intentional fire setting: This is fairly uncommon and a minority of the cases.

YOU have a key role during the design & re-design of the system

If you are working with the upgrade or the extension of an existing system or simply with the installation of a new one, during the initial design phase it is important to give as much information as possible to the company designing the system. All the information you share, such as the type of activity taking place in an area or the fact that your insurer requires something specific because of your process, will help the designer identify the correct equipment and place it in the building accordingly. For example, deciding a room will have a steaming machine, so the designer will be able to accommodate for this detail.

When designing the system, whether you hear them or not, the designer should ask themselves the following questions:

  • What activity will be carried out in this area?
  • Are there any specifics demands from the client or their insurer?
  • What technology can I select? (given the activity, the size & height of the room)
  • Where should the devices be installed?

‘What about regulations?’ you might ask. The designer should follow the current regulation: BS 5839-1, for the design of the system.

‘How do I know they are good?’ - You can ask questions about their organisation, training of their engineers and experiences, but you can also enquire whether the company bears any certification, such as:

  • BAFE SP203-1 Fire Detection and Fire Alarm Systems certification: This certification is delivered after a strict audit by the NSI (National Security Inspectorate), during which they check every aspect of the company to make sure it can carryout works to the highest standards.
  • Whether the company is part of the Fire Industry Association. Being part of the association means the company commits to training its engineers and designers according to a renowned curriculum and that they're deemed competent to carryout their job.

Disclaimer: WeMaintain ticks both boxes, as it is BAFE SP203-1 certified, and is part of the FIA.

Look to your maintenance company

Don’t worry though, if you already have a Fire Alarm, your maintenance company can and should regularly analyse the logbook of the building. If the engineer observes any recurring false alarm, they should offer some solutions to mitigate them.

As a professional, safety is our main and biggest concern. When fire alarm systems aren’t operating as they should, this can result in a loss of trust in the system (fire alarm panel), which ultimately can lead to tenants ignoring the alarm when it goes off and choosing not to evacuate as, “it’s probably another false alarm”. In some cases, the system may be switched off all together, putting you, your building and everyone inside at risk.

We want to avoid these outcomes by ensuring you have a maintenance provider who you can trust your fire alarm system with and the safety of your tenants. If you are experiencing false alarms, it is the responsibility of your maintenance provider to offer solutions and ensure a safe return to regular functioning.

Word of caution

It’s not until after you have analysed the alarm that you know if it was a false alarm or an actual fire. So remember: in the event of a fire, apply the standard procedures for your site. In general, they involve:

Source: FIA.
  • Going to the panel
  • Pressing the “Panel buzzer silence” button (to have a “calm environment” to work in)
  • Figuring out where the alarm comes from: zone + specific point — if the system is addressable
  • Going to the spot of the presumed fire and inspect the environment (are there traces of a fire)
  • Go back to the panel
  • If a fire is found, press the “Evacuate” button and call the fire brigade
  • If no fire is found, press the “Remote sounder silence” button, before resetting the panel

Find out more

For more information on our Fire Safety maintenance solutions, reach out to olivier.c@wemaintain.com.

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