False Alarms: Making Sure the Level of Alert is Right

Safety alerts elicit an urgent response with good reason. Put simply, the cost of not responding in time is potentially astronomical. Fire, for example, can destroy equipment and entire buildings and have catastrophic human cost. Businesses are naturally committed to keeping their staff, property and livelihoods safe, so the installation of fire alarms and other critical alert systems is crucial. As Klaus Allion explains, this isn’t the only crucial risk for businesses. In working environments ranging from hotels through to production plants and large offices, false alarms can be an expensive inconvenience. 

Modern fire alarm systems, for example, will display an alert on the fire panel when a single smoke or heat detector is triggered. This can reduce the impact of false alarms by allowing an internal response team a short period of time, often just five minutes, to investigate and cancel the alarm if necessary.

However, many organisations find it a challenge to notice the alarm and alert the internal response team to investigate within the designated time. Not only that, but false fire alarms can place an unnecessary burden on the Fire and Rescue Service, with their charges for wasted time creating further cost and inconvenience for businesses.

In manufacturing, unplanned downtime from false alarms can have serious financial implications. In a sector where every minute or even every second counts, the time lost while equipment is switched off and staff evacuated could be very costly indeed. No manufacturer would want to stop production while their employees are forced to leave the premises, only to realise the alarm was triggered by a faulty smoke detector.

While staff are being evacuated and equipment is switched off and rebooted, the financial clock is ticking. Ensuring that the level of response is appropriate should be high on the priority list of any manufacturing organisations.

Mass evacuation

In the hospitality industry, false fire alarms could mean the mass evacuation of all guests staying in a hotel, many of whom would be understandably upset about being forced to leave their rooms. Very few of us would trade places with the hotel manager who must explain to 500 disgruntled guests why they’ve been dragged from their hotel rooms at 3.00 am to stand in the street. Imagine the business cost if these customers demanded compensation.

Instead of evacuating the premises, a more appropriate reaction might be for internal response teams to use modern technology to pinpoint the source of the potential fire and investigate. Once the source has been identified and the level of risk assessed, the most appropriate response could then be determined and the alarm raised only if necessary, saving management teams costly and unnecessary embarrassment.

The way in which alerts are distributed to teams can be another barrier to making certain the level of response is right. Paging equipment was historically used to push messages out to response teams. These days, it’s typically smart phones that are used. While the technology has updated, the system has not.

This kind of alert is often pushed out to a response team of ten with no mechanism in place to determine whether all ten investigate or no-one attends the scene. In industries where teams respond to multiple alerts, such as hospital wards, alarm fatigue can also come into play. Complacency can set in, leaving the potential for no-one to attend a critical alarm as they assume that a colleague will.

Lack of oversight

Klaus Allion

Klaus Allion

The lack of oversight on who’s picking up the alarms and how long it takes to deal with things makes it tricky for those managing response teams to know if they’re working effectively, how the team is working or whether it needs to expand. A system of alarm acknowledgement would be a more effective method. As well as providing a clear update on who has acknowledged the alert and who will be attending the scene, this would enable management teams to complete an audit trail for ongoing review and monitor how effectively a team’s responding to alarms.

The consequences of not responding appropriately to alarms could be incredibly costly for businesses. The trick is to ensure the appropriate level of response. An automatic alert can allow a business the time to make the internal investigations necessary to ascertain the appropriate level of response.

The technology is available to enable businesses to adopt the right approach towards alarm management. Isn’t it high time all businesses woke up to adopting better procedures in relation to this matter?

Klaus Allion is Managing Director of ANT Telecom

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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