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False fire alarm rate keeps on rising

Only a couple of per cent of fire alarms are real emergencies

False fire alarm rate keeps on rising Mikael Siitonen
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By Janne Toivonen
      It is a fairly typical Wednesday morning for the Helsinki Rescue Department.
      A trolley pushed by a hospital worker bumps accidentally into a fire alarm button.
      Six Rescue Department units, with a duty fire chief and 22 suited-up firefighters onboard, respond to the call and arrive on the scene.
      Hospital fires are a serious business. Except there is no fire.
Two hours later, a false automatic alarm goes off in an office building in downtown Helsinki.
      It takes the firefighting unit almost half an hour to determine the situation on the spot. No blazing wastepaper basket or smouldering wires are found.
      Slightly more than an hour later, an automatic alarm is triggered in another building. It turns out that this, too, was a nuisance alarm.
In the course of the morning, the City of Helsinki Rescue Department has had many unnecessary assignments.
      Emergency responders who are sent to places where they are not needed are diverted away from legitimate emergencies.
      ”Some 96 to 98 per cent of automatic alarms are unnecessary; as they do not lead to any measures”, sighs Fire Chief Mikael Siitonen of the Helsinki Rescue Department.
      ”They eat away at the team’s motivation. There is unnecessary work and pointless high-risk driving amidst other traffic”, Siitonen adds.
In 2010, the Finnish rescue departments put out 6,300 building fires.
      At the same time, there were as many as 34,000 inspection visits, 22,500 of which were erroneous alarms caused by automatic fire alarm systems, while 3,000 were unnecessary fire alarms caused by smoke detectors.
      In 2010, false alarms called out the fire brigades almost 4,000 more times than in 2009.
      Most of the erroneous alarms were caused by people’s carelessness.
      ”The smoke rising from hot fat on a skillet, repair work in premises where smoke detectors are on, a hot shower or steam triggering a fire alarm in a hotel guestroom”, lists Esa Kokki, the Head of Research at the Emergency Services College.
      The list is a lengthy one.
The growth in false alarms can be partly explained by the fact that today the number of smoke detectors is higher than before.
      ”In proportion to the number of fire alarms installed, the number of assignments does not appear to have increased - at least not by much”, Kokki notes.
A bill for a new Fire and Rescue Services Act has been presented to Parliament for discussion.
      If the bill is passed, the Finnish rescue departments will in the future be able to issue fines for repeated false alarms.
      Such fines could probably amount to a few hundreds of euros for the offenders.
      Mikael Siitonen believes that the possibility of being slapped with a fine would eliminate the most flagrant cases.
      ”Money speaks a language everybody understands”, Siitonen believes.
According to Siitonen, the question is largely about attitudes.
      There is no standard practice when it comes to the placing and maintenance of fire alarm systems.
      Siitonen notes further that frequently the reaction to an unnecessary automatic alarm is a shrugged: ”Oho, it went off again”.
      ”The purpose of an alarm is to warn people, and it is of no use to anybody if people end up paying no attention when the bell rings", Siitonen contemplates.
BACKGROUND: The year of self-extinguishing cigarettes and big property fires
The fire statistics for 2010 are very similar to those in previous years.
Two positive facts are apparent: self-extinguishing cigarettes reduced the number of accidental fires by 10%, while the number of wildfires remained more or less the same, even though the summer of 2010 was extremely hot and dry.
      ”Even here, in Kuopio, the Rescue Department was afraid of increasing costs, when it was predicted that a dry summer was up ahead. However, it is really positive that people seem to have had a sense of responsibility”, says Esa Kokki, the Head of Research at the Emergency Services College, based in the city.
Negative secondary effects of the hot summer included fires caused by lightning strikes, the number of which was as high as 580 - more than twice as many as in a normal year.
      Before the summer came along, the cold winter led to an increase in fires caused by the thawing out of frozen pipes.
Building fires were more destructive than usual.
      The number of such fires remained the same as in 2009, namely around 6,300, but the aggregate value of property damage grew by as much as 30 per cent to EUR 156 million.
      ”The number of fires causing property damage greater than EUR 200,000 could rise to more than 200, which is exceptionally high. They account for about 70 to 80 per cent of all fire indemnities”, calculates Loss Prevention Manager Seppo Pekurinen of the Federation of Finnish Financial Services.
      Thanks to new assessment tools, a preliminary appraisal of damage is today more accurate than before.
According to preliminary figures from the Finnish National Rescue Association (SPEK), a total of 81 people lost their lives in fires last year.
      Even with the 10% reduction noted above, the most common single cause for the fires that took lives was careless smoking, for example in bed.
The number of fatalities was down from 107 in 2009, but the authorities are reluctant to draw any great conclusions or break out the champagne, as the fluctuation from one year to the next is traditionally quite large.
      The average figure in recent years has been around 100, with the elderly figuring prominently in the statistics: more than 30% of those who died in fires in 2010 were over 65 years of age, while their share of the population is under 20%.
      Men outnumbered women 2 to 1 in the victims.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 27.1.2011

Previously in HS International Edition:
  More than a hundred die in fires in 2008 (20.1.2009)
  Objectives set to reduce number of fire deaths are not met (12.10.2009)

See also:
  False fire alarm: swarm of mosquitoes mistaken for smoke (5.8.2009)

  Emergency Services College, Kuopio
  Federation of Finnish Financial Services
  Ministry of the Interior: Internal Security Programme
  City of Helsinki Rescue Department
  Rescue Services in Finland

JANNE TOIVONEN / Helsingin Sanomat

  1.2.2011 - THIS WEEK
 False fire alarm rate keeps on rising

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