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Facilities Management & Fire Safety – How people act in a fire situation – Part 5

February 12, 2018 1:15 pm

In LWF’s blog series for Facilities Managers and those who have an interest in or responsibility for fire safety, we have been looking at how people react when there is a fire. There has long been a preconception that people panic or act irrationally when informed a fire is in progress, but research has shown this is very rarely the case. In Part 4, the frequency of fire alarm soundings was discussed and in Part 5, the need to reduce false alarms and why they are an issue in fire safety terms is explored.


Regular occupants of a building should only ever hear the fire alarm if there is a fire, or if they have been informed in advance of a test. While false alarms are a common issue, they are to be avoided if at all possible. Frequent false fire alarm soundings can affect the safety of the building occupants as they become complacent. They are likely to assume it is just another false alarm when it is heard and may fail to evacuate the building.


For buildings where there are very many fire detectors and false alarm signals are unavoidable, it may be possible to install a system whereby the first alarm is silent and indicated to designated staff only, for example, security staff. This allows investigation of the cause before the alarm proper is sounded. Any such investigation period would have a time-related element, as well as a ‘coincidence’ detection effect, for example, should 2 devices activate, the investigation period will be overridden.


The downside of this solution is that any delay in a real fire situation can increase the amount of danger to the building occupants, however, if the first and silent alarm is urgently investigated, the time lost can be counter-balanced by the lack of delay in evacuation when the full alarm is sounded, coupled with the ability for a second signal to override the investigation.


The organisation of staff alarms and when to notify the Fire Service should be considered carefully. While it is acceptable to incorporate management and staff processes to reflect the number of false alarms experienced, the mistake of writing fire safety policy and practices around false alarms should not be made. Each instruction and procedure must assume it is a real fire and operate on that assumption.


In addition to the wish to not allow false alarms to take over and dull the responses of the building occupants, there can be encouragement from the Fire Service to investigate the validity of a fire alarm before calling them. The Fire Service in a number of areas, particularly rural ones, rely on the use of retained (on call) firefighters, and as such, a false alarm call-out can be extremely disruptive to firefighters who have to leave their ‘day jobs’ to come and attend.


While some buildings and occupancies are suitable for a formal agreement to pre-verify the existence of a fire before the Fire Service are called, such arrangements are only as good as the staff on duty and the training provided to them. Indeed, there are situations where this is not appropriate, such as premises in which people sleep or where the early arrival of the Fire Service is necessary for the safety of occupants, as in care home and hospital situations.


Voice alarm systems are generally accepted as being superior to a simple fire alarm sounder, as they contain verbal instructions for those hearing it. While voice alarm systems show a marked improvement in response times and evacuation procedures, it would still be true that an excess of false alarms using such a system would have an adverse effect.


In Part 6, fire development will be discussed. In the meantime, if you have any queries about your own facilities or wish to discuss this blog series, please contact Peter Gyere in the first instance on 0208 668 8663.


Lawrence Webster Forrest is a fire engineering consultancy based in Surrey with over 25 years’ experience, which provides a wide range of consultancy services to professionals involved in the design, development and construction and operation of buildings. 


While care has been taken to ensure that information contained in LWF’s publications is true and correct at the time of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of this information.


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