One of the most wondered things about fire alarms is actually the most common sense. When it’s activated, it’s knowing what on earth happens.
You can have the most trendy, well-maintained, and swish fire alarm system in the world that triggers with even a hint of smoke. But then what happens? Does everyone actually leave the property, and where do they go? And do the fire brigade automatically come out?
This is a classic property management issue, where you need to think more procedurally and practically, and how any operational alarm is actually used by people, after all it’s there to firstly save lives, and secondly where possible to save properties.
And this also refers to false alarms and activations. If you have a handful of people stood outside a communal-let building in the pouring rain after burnt toast has accidently triggered the fire alarm, who are simply itching to get back in the building, then someone has to make a decision and take action.
One of the core people to help steer this in the right direction is a Fire Risk Assessor. You can chat through these issues with them, and even arranging a fire drill with them can help brainstorm the various scenarios and make sure this ‘works’ at this particular property and assortment of people.
To help with this, here are a few key pointers to ask the right questions and address the relevant issues:
1. Maybe You Don’t Need an Alarm
So let’s start at the basics, and see whether you even need an operational fire alarm.
As an example, a lot of new-build apartment blocks don’t have a communal fire-alarm system but rather other means of fire-prevention such as smoke ventilation. There may well still be a form of smoke detection within each private dwelling, but as a landlord’s managing agent no communal fire alarm to maintain and link to.
On another extreme, if you occupy a small shop, under your own Fire Risk Assessment you may not even require a full singing-and-dancing fire alarm system, but another form of alerting people to vacate the unit.
So whether you’re dealing with new properties or refurbishing old ones, it’s certainly worth seeing whether an alarm is needed in the first place, and even a current one being removed.
2. Do You Stay or Do You Go
When you do need an operational fire alarm, the next question is what you want people to do when it goes off. This may sound too simple to even mention, as surely people must quickly vacate the property as they assume a fire and a smoke is affecting the building.
In a lot of cases this will probably be the case, and technically an ‘Evacuation’ policy. But in others it won’t be, a typical example being modern residential properties with a ‘Stay Put’ policy.
This may seem madness, but occupiers with a stay-put policy need to simply stay in their unit. Unless a fire is affecting their area or they are in communal areas, then they should stay put, alert emergency services, and wait for them to come and rescue them.
And when you do confirm what the basic course of action is, still drill-down into the detail, for example if applicable for all parts of the property and, for example, disabled persons.
3. Line Connections
Then confirm if there is anything connected to the fire alarm, or if it simply makes a sound but does not technically inform anyone. Again this can be a simple thing often misunderstood by people, who assume that because it is sounding then it must have alerted the fire brigade who are now on their way.
Well firstly, a lot of fire alarms don’t even have that connection to anywhere, and are there simply to make a sound to warn people in the property who then need to call 999 themselves.
When you do look at a connection, practically this may be through a phone, internet, or wi-fi line that needs setting up and paying for, and even if you don’t currently have this in place it may well be worth looking into for a slicker procedure for alerting people.
Secondly, even when someone is alerted, this often needs to be to an external monitoring company, not the emergency services direct. Also, they will then need to confirm that this is an actual real fire before alerting the emergency services in order to save wasted false-alarm call-outs.
So this will demand a carefully thought-through procedure of who is appointed, to do what, and then take whatever course of action.
4. The Three Muskateers
So now you can begin to see three different ‘contractors’ potentially being involved with fire-alarm monitoring.
Firstly, there is the bread-and-butter contractor who actually maintains and services the fire alarm panel and system, typically every six or twelve months. They’re the technical bods who will get the system working correctly.
Secondly, there is a remote monitoring contractor who is almost like a middle-man call centre somewhere who will receive any signal you have set-up on the alarm and realise there is a problem. When the alarm is being tested, they will often need calling to say so, otherwise they will assume an alarm-activation is for real and take action to resolve.
And thirdly, there is what they call the keyholder service who are the actual people who may need to attend site and see whether there is a real fire or not. However this may not always be needed, as there may be people on site or nearby who can be called to decide this, but often it is good-practice in order to ensure full 24/7 response to any activation.
5. Who Attends Site
So on this third keyholder service, the ideal scenario is an external company who have men in vans driving around the country and able to go to a property to see what the issue is.
Speed is important, as if a real fire is happening and there is threat to life and building then someone needs to be there soon to determine this and literally call 999 if needed to get them attending – therefore agree definite response times of, say, up to half an hour from being alerted.
They will then need to have clear instructions on what to do on site, what the access arrangements are, and anyone to report to. This includes knowing how to operate the fire alarm, detect which zones and parts of the building are affected, and sweep the property to make a definite decision on whether it is real or not before then silencing the alarm.
They will need to liaise with any occupiers and Fire Marshalls on site, inform other parties such as the fire alarm maintenance contractor, and complete records.
And if you don’t have such a formal keyholder in place, then other methods will need to be set-up. So this may be contacts on sites, or local managing-agent contacts.
6. Keeping Contact With Site
Linked to this is keeping in contact with people on site, even if a keyholder is being instructed. If the incident is, say, during working hours for a commercial property, then it can be helpful for the managing agent or remote monitoring company to have site contacts to first check if this is a real incident or not.
It can also work the other way round, so occupiers know who to call when there are issues.
Also, with multiple occupiers it can be confusing as to who does what, so possibly have one key contact for people to check with. And even then have an extra number, such as a mobile phone number, because if they are beginning to evacuate the property when the fire alarm is activated then they will not be around in their office to answer the main phone.
7. Interlinked Alarms
With multi-let properties with different occupiers with their own systems, then issues arise when you look at these ‘talking’ to each other.
So lets say a fire alarm is activated in a ground floor shop, which may need to send a signal to the fire alarm for the shop next door or offices or flats above to warn them as well. Technically they’re still separate alarms but ‘interlinked’ between them.
You then need to discern who takes the cost and responsibility for these, and first see whether they’re in actual fact even needed, as it can complicate matters with multiple alarms and call-out procedures triggered for false alarms in a building that should be well compartmentalised anyway to stop fire spreading.
8. Dealing With False Alarms
False alarms may well be the main source of activations, maybe from a genuine incident like burnt toast or just accidently pressing one of the call point buttons.
However, everyone needs to assume it is real until proven otherwise, even if this means all going outside and waiting at the fire assembly point half an hour for official people to turn up and deem all is well and literally silence the alarms.
Someone needs to carry the buck, check the alarm and what zone was activated and that they are happy to determine the incident as a false alarm. Until then, assume the worst.
For communal properties, this can be a problem, as even with the above procedures of, say, a keyholder on the way to save the day, it will take time for them to come and deal with.
And even if all is well, the correct person will need to attend and silence the alarm and re-set.
9. Fire Assembly Points
A final point is where people congregate outside a property when the fire alarm is sounding, typically referred to as a Fire Assembly Point.
Ideally, they have a sign showing where this is, ideally far away from the building for safety, but not causing difficult road crossings, and not so far away that people can’t keep an eye on who can then wander in the property whilst the alarm is going off and doors are unlocked.
This is where Fire Marshalls can account for people, and essential contacts like the keyholder can report to.
For communal-occupied properties, each occupier is responsible for their own areas, although the overall landlord and responsible person for the communal parts of the property under good practice needs to organise test fire drills, say, every six months in order to make sure people are well versed on what to do.
Getting A Response From Your Fire Alarm
In summary, fire alarm systems are essential in lots of properties to help alert people to the potential fire and smoke issues. Therefore getting them technically right and serviced is paramount.
But don’t stop there; know what is supposed to happen after they do go off, right from who they inform, or what people are then supposed to take action on, to how to re-set and deal with false alarms.
You then need to roll this out to everyone, with clear communication and procedures to always keep reviewing and testing things.
After all, this is critical to help people safely leave a property in the event of an emergency.
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