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April 26, 2022

False fire alarms in leisure, retail, and hospitality premises

Every false fire alarm is costly, but in a post-COVID world, there is now even more pressure on the leisure, retail, and hospitality industries to prevent false alarms in their premises.

The leisure, retail, and hospitality industries were hit hard by COVID-19; as we begin to emerge from the pandemic businesses will be keen to make up for lost time, avoiding the loss in revenue caused by false fire alarms.

Home Office figures

Despite two years of restrictions and lockdowns, false fire alarms continue to cost the UK, Home Office figures reveal that there were a total of 2,497 false fire alarms caused by the “malicious activation of [a] fire call point/alarm” in England for the year ending September 2021 – surpassing challenged hoax calls as the largest reason for malicious fire alarms.

Accidental activations too remained a significant cause of false alarms; 12,732 false fire alarms were recorded due to the accidental and careless activation of fire alarm and fire-fighting equipment, including manual call points.

With the restrictions, closures, and reduced footfall faced by businesses, we might have expected to see the number of false fire alarms fall significantly during the pandemic. This serves as a timely reminder of the persistence of unwanted fire alarm signals, and the need for leisure, retail, and hospitality premises to seek a solution to avoid further disruptions post-COVID.

Although necessary once a fire alarm sounds, a preventable evacuation ultimately means unhappy customers, disruption for businesses, and unnecessary strain for our stretched emergency services.

At a time where it is prudent to avoid the crowded corridors and large gatherings at assembly points that follow a needless false alarm evacuation, it has become even more important to prevent false alarms.

Continuing to be the largest incident type, false fire alarms accounted for 41 per cent of the incidents attended by Fire and Rescue Services in England for the period – fires accounted for just 27 per cent.

Over £1 billion

With similar figures reflected across the UK, over £1 billion is lost every year due to false alarms. To recoup this cost the London Fire Brigade became the first fire service in the country to recover costs from buildings including leisure, retail, and hospitality premises, with a poor false alarm record.

A false alarm is defined as a fire alarm signal caused by means other than a genuine fire, which has activated a fire detection and alarm system, these can include: equipment false alarm, environmental influences, accidental damage, and inappropriate human action, including the malicious activation of a manual call point.

Under The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order Act 2005, it is the responsibility of the building owner or the ‘responsible person’ to ensure effective fire precautions are in place to protect staff, customers, or visitors.

Several precautionary steps can be implemented to prevent false fire alarms before they occur; routine testing and maintenance to call points is a must to assure proper operation, but it is not the only proactive approach.

BS 5839-1:2017

As recommended in BS 5839-1:2017 manual call points should be fitted with a protective cover to prevent false fire alarms. The British Standard Institute recommends in section 20.2b, that: “All MCPs should be fitted with a protective cover, which is moved to gain access to the frangible element.

“It is now recommended that a protective cover is fitted to a Type A manual call point to help prevent false alarms.”

Following the introduction of the new recommendations in 2017 malicious false fire alarms have fallen by 18%, an indication of the effectiveness of protective covers, however, every false alarm is still costly.

Firefighters respond to fire signals as if they are real, this exposes the public and fire crew to unnecessary risk in their swift response to false alarms, directing them away from real emergencies.

Leisure

Leisure premises are particularly susceptible to false fire alarms, whether it be wayward sports equipment in sports hall and gymnasiums, or high-traffic areas in music venues, cinemas, and theatres.

Concerts, football matches, and even pantomimes have all been interrupted mid-performance in the UK, and in some cases even cut short by false fire alarms – resulting in disgruntled fans and calls for refunds.

Government fire safety guidance for theatres, cinemas, and similar premises, highlights the need for protective covers to combat both accidental and malicious activations: “To reduce the risk of malicious or accidental operation which may promote panic you should consider as part of your management plan alternative arrangements such as the guarding of manual call points (e.g. with a simple, easily removed, cover).”

A hinged cover around a call point is also likely to solve the problem of accidental activation or damage in storage areas where there is a continual movement of equipment.

Whilst guidance for open air events and venues draws attention to the high risk of malicious activations in certain public areas, such as large beer tents – in this instance, alarmed call point covers might be more effective.

Retail

For retail premises, trollies and shopping bags threaten the accidental activation of manual call points and the evacuations that follow threaten both a loss of customers and profit. However, robust polycarbonate covers can be fitted to protect sensitive break glass units and deflect heavy blows.

This is reinforced by the Government’s fire safety risk assessment for shops: “False alarms from electrical fire warning systems are a major problem (e.g. malicious activation of manual call points) and result in many unwanted calls to the fire and rescue service every year.”

Shopping centres and supermarkets are regularly forced to evacuate hundreds of shoppers due to unwanted fire alarm signals; abandoning their shopping on conveyor belts, baskets, and trollies. Owing to the disruption many choose not to return to complete their purchases.

Hospitality

This phenomenon can be particularly detrimental for the hospitality industry, where evacuations following false fire alarms leave restaurants and bars vulnerable to incidents of “dine and dash.” Some hospitality premises have lost out on upwards of £1,000 when customers walked off without paying after a false alarm.

Fire safety guidance for licensed premises reinforces the need to put a stop to false fire alarms within the industry: “Fire alarm systems should normally conform to the current edition of BS 5839, with consideration made for prevention of false alarms.”

Alarm fatigue

Repeated false alarms reduce the public’s confidence in fire alarms, contributing to alarm fatigue and a complacent attitude towards evacuations. Alarm fatigue occurs when a person becomes desensitised to an alarm due to repeated false alarms and as a result, fails to react appropriately in an emergency – having potentially fatal effects.

The Manchester Woolworths fire in 1979 is a devastating example of alarm fatigue, as the fire alarm sounded customers were reluctant to leave the store. By the time they realised they were in danger, it was too late, ten people died in the blaze.

Alarm fatigue also poses a serious threat to the hospitality industry, with Government fire safety guidance for sleeping accommodation, such as hotels, stating: “If there are excessive false alarms in your premises, people may become complacent and not respond correctly to a warning of a real fire. In such circumstances, you may be failing to comply with fire safety law. All false alarms should be investigated to identify the cause of the problem and remedial action taken.”

In some areas of hospitality premises, such as function rooms in a hotel, call points can be vulnerable to malicious and accidental activations – to reduce this risk, protection for manual call points is advised.

Some hotel guests react casually to fire alarms, often wrongfully believing them to be a “hoax” or “prank”, reducing response time and delaying evacuation.  As recommended in BS 5839-1:2017 manual call points can be fitted with a protective cover preventing false alarms whether accidental or malicious, halting alarm fatigue.

Call point protectors

Safety Technology International manufacture a range of protective covers, specifically designed to prevent false alarms whether accidental or malicious.

The STI story began in 1980 with a challenge by a school headteacher who wanted to stop their false fire alarms. Founder, Jack Taylor, used his expertise in security systems to invent the first and original Stopper® polycarbonate protective cover. From integral covers to outdoor and sounder models; there are now variations to suit all applications.

The tamper-proof polycarbonate covers ensure call points are protected without restricting legitimate use in a real emergency, a combination of optional warning alarm, flashing beacon, and break seal acts as a deterrent against malicious activation.

As we enter transition to the “new normal” it is imperative the leisure, retail, and hospitality industries prevent false fire alarms in their premises. Conforming to BS 5839-1:2017 to protect manual call points from false activation, whether accidental or malicious. Not only to aid economic recovery post-pandemic but to keep fire safety at the forefront of customers’ minds. Failure to address false fire alarms allows alarm fatigue to manifest, and this can prove to be costly – in every sense of the word.

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