How to manage false fire alarms


    Are you wondering how to manage false fire alarms? Wanting to make sure that you don’t cause a false alarm? Or even just how to test your own alarm in your house? In this blog we discuss the 5 major causes of false alarms, how these can be avoided and finally how to test a fire alarm safely.

    The five major causes of false alarms given by fire brigades are:

    1. Incorrect or poorly designed systems
    2. Fumes from cooking or burnt food
    3. Steam, aerosols, and other fumes activating the detectors
    4. The build-up of dust on a detector, caused perhaps by building work or air conditioning outlets
    5. Accidental damage to a 'break glass' point


    So, what part can the fire system designer play in reducing false alarms?

    Of course, false alarms are not only costly to the Fire Services; there is also a cost to your business in terms of lost production and disruption caused by staff evacuation. According to the Fire Industry Association, it is estimated that false alarms cost UK businesses in excess of £1 billion per annum, so how can the design of your fire system assist in reducing incidents and their associated costs?


    Let’s take each of the causes cited in the list above:

    1. Incorrect or poorly designed system

    This highlights the importance of the system being correctly designed at the point of installation. BS 5839-1: 2013 is the current code of practice that makes recommendations for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in non-domestic premises and also includes a section devoted to False Alarm management for reference, but reputable fire safety equipment suppliers will also have qualified experts on hand to advise and assist you.

    1. Fumes from cooking or burnt food

    The advent of breakfast at work for those arriving early has brought the toaster into the workplace. This in turn generates a huge amount of false alarms, so the detector within the room needs to perhaps be a rate of rise heat detector.

    But what about the corridor outside the room? Corridors on escape routes must be protected by smoke detectors. Look at the corridor - does the detector have to go outside the kitchen door? Many typical corridors are less than 2M wide, so take advantage of the increased spacing allowed in such corridors and assess the best place for the detector, away from door of the room containing the toaster.

    1. Steam, aerosols, and other fumes activating the detectors

    Steam from showers in hotel bedrooms is a given, so consider using a CO detector within the room (these are specially designed for fire detection and are not to be confused with those placed near boilers for life safety). Don’t just place the detector in the centre of the room near the shower door, place it at the furthest point from the shower door - even if it is 500mm away from a wall on the other side of the room. Alternatively, take advantage of the many features offered by today’s addressable systems and engineer a solution using multi sensors and output delays to allow search time. Most importantly, don’t forget to have these solutions agreed by all parties and record them on the design certificate.

    1. The build-up of dust on a detector, caused perhaps by building work or air conditioning outlets

    It’s amazing how much dust is created by an air conditioning outlet. Detectors should be located at least one metre from any outlet. Once again look for the best place within the room, as long as it’s over 500mm from a wall or beam and it complies with the general coverage constraints.

    1. Accidental damage to a 'break glass' point

    Consider moving away from detectors and using break glass call points instead. These are normally positioned at all external doors, high risk areas, at internal zonal boundaries etc. Where there is a possibility that the call point might be accidentally activated, why not fit a call point cover, or perhaps in a bar area of a pub, put the call point behind the bar? These will need to be recorded as variations, but it does help to reduce false alarms.


    So, what are the reasons behind false fire alarm calls to the fire brigades and how can these be best avoided?

    1. Poorly trained users

    When completing a fire alarm install, it’s all too easy for the engineer to test the last detector, check the panel is showing “normal” and then pack up his tools and leave, without first fully demonstrating the fire alarm to the end user. While explaining the functions of the detectors and alarms, there is also an opportunity to cover the avoidance of false alarms. Of course, in the case of a building site, the end user may not be present on handover, so it is extremely important for the installation company or engineer to allow for a return visit to demonstrate the system, within the cost of the fire alarm. This of course extends to explaining the importance of the management of faults or pre-alarm, which may well be a precursor to false alarms.


    1. Lack of maintenance

    Maintenance is critical in avoiding false alarms, it is important to move site detectors away from air conditioning and fresh air grills. However, they do still need to be checked at each service visit to ensure that there is no build-up of dirt or dust. They are best kept clean by using a detector duster spray on them, detectors should also be tested at least once a year.


    1. The system being tested without informing the call centre

    Just about any system that is being monitored will rely on human intervention to make sure the signals don’t go through, but it can be made easier by fitting a relay isolation switch, with an indicator by the panel to isolate the signal relay. Better still, with an addressable system you can use a key switch on the panel linked to an input, which is also programmed to show an isolation at the panel. In this way the site is not left without fire cover should human memory fail and forget to switch the monitoring back on.

    Steam, aerosols, and other fumes activating the detectors: It is especially important for the designer to consider the potential for steam, the use of aerosols and other fumes which may occur once the building is in use. As mentioned previously, probably the most obvious example of this is hotel bedrooms, with steam from the showers and the use of hair sprays etc. The correct detector needs to be selected and positioned. Many hotels also have a search time programmed into the cause-and-effect programming, which needs to be recorded and checked to ensure that it is correctly set up.

    Your next question may be, how do I test a fire alarm safely?

    All fire alarms come with a test button whether they are battery operated or a wired system, when this button is pressed and held the smoke alarm siren should sound. If the alarm does not sound when the test button is pressed, first replace the batteries, and then test again. If this does not fix the problem or you have a wired system, you will need to replace your alarm.

    Fire alarms within the home should be tested on a monthly basis and once a year you should replace the batteries even if they were working the last time you checked.


    The Firechief range includes high-performance fire extinguishers, fire blankets, first aid kits, lithium-ion fire extinguishers for your home and leisure time.  For more information, call us on +44 (0)330 999 0019 or email

    The information contained within this blog is provided solely for general informational and educational purposes and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. Before taking any actions based upon this information, we advise the reader to consult any and all relevant statutory or regulatory guidance and where felt necessary to consult a qualified fire or industry regulation

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