11/23/10 — False alarms cost the city

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False alarms cost the city

By Gary Popp
Published in News on November 23, 2010 1:46 PM

When the alarm bell rings at the Goldsboro Fire Department, there is a one in five chance that the call will turn out to be a false alarm, usually triggered by a malfunctioning safety monitoring system.

Nearly 20 percent of the calls the department has responded to this year turned out to be false alarms, according to city records. And about 80 percent of those came from a malfunctioning alarm. And each false alarm costs the city approximately $250 in manpower, fuel and associated costs.

That is too much, city officials say, but until technology improves, there is little that can be done about the wasted time and effort, they say. When the alarm sounds, the trucks have to roll.

Since the start of the year, the department has spent $88,698 answering 354 false alarms, records show. The city fines a business or homeowner if more than three false alarms are set off in a year. The fine is $50 for up to six calls. It increases to $100 after seven. So far this year, the city has collected $1,150 in fines.

A big reason for the rise in false alarms is the fact that more homeowners and business owners are installing alarm systems nowadays and that is a good thing, said Fire Chief Gary Whaley. But it still doesn't prevent his firefighters from rushing to non-emergencies.

"I think it's a burden on the department, but at the same time we don't want people to do away with alarms because alarms do save lives and early detection does prevent damage," Whaley said.

Whaley said that most of the false alarms originate from multifunctional monitoring systems that provide response for fire, burglary and medical emergencies. They are sophisticated and can be set off a faulty sensor, a wiring problem, or even the accumulation of dust.

The department responds to false alarms calls with the same manpower and machinery it does regular calls. This typically includes three fire engines, one ladder truck and 17 firefighters.

"You never know when that alarm is going to be real," Whaley said.

City Manager Joseph Huffman doesn't like the wasted manpower or expense either, but like Whaley, considers it a necessary part of conducting the city's business.

"If we have monitoring systems that are malfunctioning and we are rolling trucks and personnel unnecessarily, then that is a problem," Huffman said. "But it's better to be cautious."

Huffman added that he expects advances in technology to lead to an eventual decrease in alarm systems' errors.

"It is costly, but until the system gets better that is what we are going to have to live with," he added.

Whaley said many of the calls are to the same locations.

"The biggest problem is having false alarm calls to the same facilities or residences over and over again," he said.

To cut down on the number of false alarms, Whaley urged residents and business owners to maintain their alarm systems and keep them working properly.

"Have your alarm system company come to your home or business to check the system periodically," the chief said. "Maintenance on the alarm systems is key."

Dean Harris, president of Carolina Phone and Alarms, said the best way to lower the amount of false alarm calls is through regular maintenance and testing of the fire detectors by licensed contractors.

"The biggest cause of false alarms, in my opinion, is dirty smoke detectors," Harris said.

Harris added that National Fire Protection Associate code requires every device be tested and maintained by a licensed contractor every year.

"If a company wants a fire alarm system installed, have the system installed by someone who is trained through the North Carolina Electronic Security Association and has received manufacturer certification," he said.