Thursday, July 11, 2013

The scaled back fire alarm response... friend or foe?

Many organizations across the country have scaled back their automatic fire alarm response over the past 5 years. Many fire departments are simply having a single engine respond to fire alarm calls, while others have cut back the response to an engine and a truck. For the sake of this article, we will not address Department of Insurance standards or the changing of these standard to allow for the reduction in responding assets.

Why cut back the response?

Money. The number one reason for trimming back the response on automatic fire alarm calls is of a fiscal nature. The amount of money a fire department has in a budget year dictates the allowable response at times. With many public safety organizations feeling the brunt of the recession, responses have been scaled back to save money.  Personnel, fuel, equipment maintenance, etc…. all costs money.

Complacency. Many of the fire alarm calls in the United States each year are unfounded with no emergency present. The majority are false activations.

Loss of focus. With call volumes on the rise nationwide, cutting back on some of the incidents companies respond to eases the load on the personnel. The few “working fires” that morph out of an automatic fire alarm are forgotten when these types of decisions are made.

Bandwagon Syndrome. Everyone else is cutting back the response to fire alarms. Something must be wrong with us if we don’t do it also. Right?

Safety. Why place more trucks on the road responding to a call that most likely will turn out to be false? It puts the public and the responders at risk.

What is wrong with trimming the response?

Firefighters operate in worst-case scenarios. Every incident may be the “big one”.

Why do you monitor a home on a CO call? Simply because you are treating it as worst-case scenario and ensuring that there is no hazards present. When CO is ruled out, the incident is de-escalated. The same should be true for fire alarm activations.

Fire alarm activations are structure fires until proven otherwise.

The above statement is the bottom line. Our job is to treat calls like the real deal until we; the firefighters prove there is nothing emergent occurring. Trimming back the response does nothing but foster complacency. One Engine Company responding to an incident that we know should be treated as a structure fire creates a subconscious cues in the brain that de-escalates the situation prior to arrival causing firefighters to treat the situation with less efficiency. In addition, the scaled back response delays firefighters from arriving with sufficient manpower on a working fire and create situations that do not ensure rapid intervention is organized in a timely manner, especially with a crew already on the scene going to work. In many locales nationwide, there is also a time lapse from when the first engine arrives on scene, declares a “working fire” to the time it takes for the appropriate assets to be dispatched, to the time it takes the crews to respond.

One Engine Company or one Engine Company and a Truck Company are not sufficient.

What is the solution?

The solution is to have enough resources dispatched that can appropriately handle a “working fire” situation for a period of time while other assets are dispatched and responding. A minimum of three engine companies and a truck company is my recommendation for automatic fire alarms. It is a scaled back response that ensures success on the first few minutes of a “working fire” situation. The first due Engine Company and first due Truck Company responds in an emergency response fashion. The other units respond in a non-emergency fashion, however maintains their state of readiness (full turnouts, tools, game plan, etc…) Here is how it breaks down…..

1st Due Engine Company (Emergent Response)- Investigation, Fire Attack

2nd Due Engine Company (Non-Emergent Response unless upgraded)- Water Supply, Second Hose Line.

3rd Due Engine Company (Non-Emergency Response unless upgraded)- Rapid Intervention.

1st Due Truck Company (Emergent Response Assist with investigation, Forcible Entry, Truck Company Operations if required)

Why should the truck company respond emergent? They are a specialized unit that provides tactical support to the engine company to ensure incident success. (Forcible Entry, Ventilation, Search and Rescue, Overhaul, Secondary Egress etc…)

The fiscal impact of the above recommendation should not be taken lightly; rather decisions should be made to reduce spending in other non-essential areas so that incident response doesn’t take a direct hit.

The fire service needs to return to worst-case scenario mindset and make decisions that ensure tactical success. Remember, the community is counting on you to fix their problem and save their lives. Be smart with decision-making, ensure tactical success, and do so while ensuring success of the business aspect of the organization as well.

Be safe out there.


  1. Justin,
    I have to disagree with the full response for automatic alarms. We cut back to 3 rigs and the BC for automatic alarms, 4 or 5 rigs for report of smoke or fire in a building. Well over 95% of our false alarms are just that-FALSE alarms. Most of the other 5% are minor issues handled by the first rig, and many of those are also reported by phone. Even with our fines for repeated alarms, we have some places that have constant problems-during my last the same nursing home had 6 automatic fire alarm activations. The first due engine only went 3 times-the next engine over had to take 2, and the third due had to take another, because the first due runs 12-15 calls a day and they were on other runs.

    My department has been cut by 30% while run volumes have increased by 35% in 5 years. If we sent the full response to every alarm we would delay or miss at least one other response 80% of the time. It is a very real possibility that some guy having a heart attack could die while we stage at the fire alarm awaiting the results of the investigation. Mutual aid; sure, but the neighboring departments are just as strapped as we are.

    We send the resources capable of mitigating the problem 99% of the time. We run one rig normal traffic to CO calls unless someone is reported to be ill. Same for traffic accidents without injuries reported. 99% of the time the incident is capable of being handled by one crew. Just like any other response, if you find out it's more than you can handle you strike the box.

    The community is counting on us to not only fix the problem, but they demand we do it with increasingly limited resources and funding. We do the best we can with what we have, and we keep fighting for more. City managers read NFIRS reports too; they see all the cancelled en route codes and propose cuts because they don’t understand what we do, only what we cost. And if I kill or maim one civilian responding to a false alarm, it won't matter how many buildings we saved.


  2. John

    Thank you for your feedback. I am well aware of the reduction in funding. You state that you have cut back to three units and a Chief on automatic fire alarms? Can you elaborate please? I am interested to see what those units are. The blog post states four units on an automatic fire alarm, just as you stated you are responding with. Also, addressing the heart attack situation you give while units are staging on a fire alarm..... I am a big fan of the "worry about the call you have" before worrying about the call you don't have. I am not saying that you don't need to think about that, but any good company officer or chief knows their area and what is going on. If they have nothing to the fire alarm, simply release a unit to take the next call. That is what officers and chiefs are for. Also, I would like to have some more information on the 5% of minor calls on automatic fire alarms that are handled by the first due piece. You state that 95% are false. Can you elaborate for my education please. I assume that these figures are estimated. In a year's time, your department never has an automatic alarm that turns into a working fire? Shoot me back a comment and let me know on the above. I enjoy learning from readers and having "tool talk" about the job. Stay safe and thanks.


  3. Justin,

    We send three engines (3 FF each)and a BC to an auto alarm. 4-5 engines respond to reported smoke in a building, structure fire, or water flow alarm, depends on what we have available and the occupancy. We lost both of our truck companies to budget cuts. Third engine does truck work. You recommended 3 engines, truck, and chief. When you are surrounded by small 2-3 station fire depts, the politicians like to point out, "if they need more than 2 or 3 trucks they call mutual aid, we can do that too".

    We are spread out enough that, should we send everything to a fire alarm at one end of town, response time to the next call could be 15-20 minutes from the scene of the first. It happens every day as it is.

    The 5% I'm talking about are the burning belts in A/C and furnace motors, broken sprinkler heads that we replace, trash can fires extinguished by sprinklers, etc.

    My numbers are estimated, as I don't have access to the detailed NFIRS statistics. The chiefs did study it and based the change on the NFIRS data. We are small enough that with the limited number of fires we get (about 3% of run volume) we know the story for each one. In the 21 years I've been on the job here, I can think of only 1 fire in our city that came in only via an automatic alarm-not a sprinkler flow alarm or with concurrent phone calls-and that required the services of more than a single company.

    The fire service is being decimated up here in the rust belt. We really miss having truck companies, and we miss the guys who were laid off. Our apparatus are falling apart, we have almost no serviceable tools, and there is no money for training as it is. Every company takes almost as many runs in their adjacent areas as their first due most days because we are so busy. Under those circumstances, it just doesn't make sense to dedicate more resources than necessary to any type of call, especially when our experience shows it won't make a difference. Give us the resources and it may change the equation.