Over £1bn is lost by UK businesses every year due to false alarms in their fire and security systems¹. At a time when finances have never been tighter, companies cannot afford the drop in productivity that the disruption from a false alarm creates. We ask Oracle Fire specialist Annette Daniels and Oracle Security expert Mark Younger how to prevent false alarms.
What kind of false alarms do you see?
A: With fire alarms, the error is almost always down to an old system being poorly maintained – dust in the detectors stop them working properly. You also get clients who change the purpose of a room or the structure of a building but keep the same detector, and it goes off because of the heat, or fumes. Of course, where sites have people living on them, like university campuses, you’ll get cooking smoke setting them off and everyone is turfed out until the cause is found.
One client had lots of false alarms with the same detector, and despite changing the kit, cables, everything, it kept going off after a few months. Eventually we realised it was the heat kicking out of a nearby vending machine, of all things. The bloomin’ thing was barely used but when it did spring to action, the dust that came off it was enough to trigger a false alarm!
M: Here at Oracle Vision, the majority of the false alarms we see are on monitored CCTV systems. Issues tend to stem from poor site maintenance – you’ll get trees or shrubbery growing near or in front of detectors, which triggers them falsely, especially in windy conditions. Or you might find that a client changes their site layout, for example a vehicle forecourt has a swap around of the cars and some bunting put up which triggers the alarms when it flaps about. Generally we see a lot of badly designed systems, put in by other companies, and they have big holes in their detection areas and the wrong cameras for the job.
What sort of disruption do false alarms cause?
A: For a large company, such as a warehouse with lots of machinery, a false alarm could involve all staff being evacuated out of the building. With 2000+ workers outside for half an hour or more, you can imagine how that business could lose thousands. Of course, they rarely go straight back to work either – they have a natter, pop to the loo, make a brew. They’re only human!
Additionally you have to consider whether the Fire & Rescue service are called to larger sites. That’s a resource which could be needed elsewhere, and in those cases, the impact could be far graver.
M: The issue for companies with monitored CCTV is that if they have repeated false alarms from the same detector, the monitoring station may switch off or ‘isolate’ that channel. Which means you are potentially left vulnerable on that part of your site. If you’re paying a company to carry out keyholding services you could easily rack up the costs quickly if they’re having to go out to site and investigate all of the time.
How can businesses avoid false alarms?
A: There are four main steps I would suggest businesses follow to reduce the likelihood of false fire alarms:
- Do your risk assessment. Learn about your environment. Then put the right equipment on your site. You should be doing a full walk around every year with your provider to look for any issues, changes to the building use, etc. Some companies dodge this because it takes time and money, but really – what price can you put on someone’s life, and the damage it could cause to your business? It’s a false economy.
- Keep up your maintenance. This is required by law, but you’d be surprised how many businesses buy a smoke detector once and think that’s them sorted for life. Most detectors last seven years, max. You have to keep an eye on them, have them cleaned and checked regularly. Just like the risk assessment, this is a small outlay to protect against what could be a much greater cost.
- Research multi-sensors. These have been out a while but few businesses install them because people don’t like change, and they’re used to their same-old smoke detectors. These alarms are far less likely to be false, because they combine optical and heat sensors.
- Consider staff alarms. Your risk assessment should highlight whether a staff alarm is required. That is, a staged approach whereby you alert employees first, who can investigate the situation and only escalate the alarm and evacuate if needed. This is very common in hospitals, care homes and special needs schools, where a sounding alarm could cause panic, distress and greater risk. Staff alarms can reduce false alarms, however they require very strict procedures to ensure everyone is evacuated safely when necessary.
M: Here are my three steps you can take to prevent false alarms on your commercial security alarm systems:
- Security is much like Fire, in those first two most important points. You should do a full security assessment regularly to ensure you really know your site and what it needs. Then you need to maintain the equipment you have installed to make sure it’s always operational and ready to do its job when required.
- If you are getting reports of false alarms from your CCTV monitoring company, deal with the issue quickly. The last thing you want is a detector to be isolated, potentially leaving you blind on a vulnerable area of your site.
- Consider employing the services of a keyholding company who can investigate alarms/issues when you’re not on the premises. Aside from this saving you the hassle of getting out of bed in the middle of the night, it will also protect you. Keyholders are security trained and vetted, meaning they are prepared to deal with the threat of an intruder still being inside the premises who may pose a danger.
If you are concerned about your business premises and would like to chat to our experts about your needs, do just get in touch. Our advice is free!