More than seventy times in the past two years, firefighters were dispatched to a cluster of high-rise buildings in the southeast of Greater Glasgow in response to false alarms. A concerned Cambuslang resident who witnessed “massive responses” told me of local fire crews repeatedly racing to the flats.
I submitted a Freedom of Information request for the exact numbers. The calls involved three blocks just off Cambuslang Main Street: Sherry Heights, Rosebank Tower, and Standford Heights. In 2020, the blocks together triggered a total of 27 false alarms, followed by 31 in 2021 and 13 more between January and June of this year.
The cost of each call out is carried by the fire service – and therefore the taxpayer. The Fire Industry Association estimates that false alarms cost the UK over £1bn per year.
The anonymous resident who inquired about the call-outs told me:
“I’ve noticed for a while the fire brigade were called out regularly, and because of the buildings involved it is always a huge response. It must cost a huge amount of time and resources for such an understandably big response each time.”
False alarms account for almost one third of fire and rescue activity across Scotland
Firefighters, according to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, will spend more time on keeping people safe after a public consultation backed calls to reduce their attendance at false alarms.
The service recently held a 12-week public consultation that provided communities and partners with three options to safely reduce these numbers.
SFRS Assistant Chief Officer Stuart Stevens was quoted as saying:
“We are grateful to the public and our partners for sharing their views on our proposals. False alarms account for almost one-third of fire and rescue activity across Scotland. They place a drain on front-line services, increase risk to road users and cause interruption to the business sector and communities. The advantages of call challenging workplaces to reduce these callouts are clear. Making this change means we can carry out more training, community safety and fire prevention activity, as well as improving road safety and reducing our carbon impact.
“These unnecessary blue-light journeys bring risks to our crews, other road users and pedestrians as well as impacting the environment with an estimated 575 tonnes of carbon emissions produced – the equivalent of heating 230 homes a year. Businesses will also experience less disruption as they no longer need to wait for us to attend to give the all clear after a false alarm. The legal responsibility for dealing with an AFA alert lies with the duty holder of a property and most UK fire and rescue services now seek confirmation of a fire before attending. Now the SFRS is making this change too.”
Action being taken on false alarms
The service says that one of the best ways that they can establish whether to respond to a call from an AFA is by speaking to the person who made the call.
This enables control staff to ask relevant questions of the caller and, if necessary, send the appropriate number of fire appliances to save life and protect property. This is known as ‘call challenge’ and was proposed under Option A.
“The consultation identified that most stakeholders supported Option A which means that the SFRS will establish if Automatic Fire Alarms (AFAs) in workplaces have been triggered by an actual fire before sending any appliances. This change, which will reduce attendance rates by up to 57 per cent, will come into effect in April 2023 and will bring Scotland into line with most other UK Fire and Rescue Services.
It is anticipated that 37,524 hours could now be released each year for firefighters to enhance their training – and carry out community safety work, including supporting the most vulnerable to stay safe from fires within the home.”
Hospitals, residential care homes and sleeping risk premises will remain exempt and appliances will continue to be mobilised automatically to any fire alarm activations within these facilities.
What were the options?
The three options that were consulted on according to the SFRS, were:
Option A – Estimated 57% reduction in attendance
Control centre staff will call challenge all automatic file alarms from non-domestic premises, unless exempt.
- No response is mobilised, if questioning confirms there is no fire, or signs of fire.
- Automatic exemption applied to hospitals, is increased to a pre-determined attendance (PDA) of two appliances regardless time of day and shall be subject to periodic review.
- Sleeping risk premises are exempt from call challenging and will receive the following immediate response:
- Residential Care Homes receive a PDA of two fire appliances regardless time of day.
- All other sleeping risks receive a PDA of one fire appliance between 0700-1800hrs and two fire appliances out-with these hours.
Option B – Estimated 85% reduction in attendance
Control centre staff will call challenge all automatic file alarms from non-domestic premises.
- No response will be mobilised, if questioning through call challenge confirms there is no fire, or signs of fire.
- No exemptions to call challenging apply (i.e. all automatic file alarm calls received are call challenged, regardless of property type and caller).
Option C – Estimated 71% reduction in attendance
Non-attendance to automatic file alarms from non-domestic premises.
- Our OC staff will advise the caller that we will not attend unless a back-up 999 call confirming fire, or signs of fire is received.
- Property types recognised by us as having sleeping provision will be exempt and therefore they will receive the following immediate response to an automatic file alarm:
- Residential Care Homes will receive a PDA of two fire appliances regardless of the time of day
- All other sleeping risks receive a PDA of one fire appliance between 0700-1800hrs and a PDA of two fire appliances out-with these hours
Reduced call outs mean better safety for the vulnerable in society
Huge emergency responses to constant false alarms will be a thing of the past from April 2023. Crews will only be sent out to workplaces when it has been established that an alarm has been triggered by an actual fire.
Attendance rates will be reduced by up to 57 percent. SFRS say that the change will allow firefighters to devote more time to keeping people safe, including helping the most vulnerable stay safe from fires within the home, not only saving us a bit of cash, but also protecting the most at risk in our society.
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