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Nuisance Fire Alarms

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Athens Fire Department Responses to Ohio University Campus (2007) [PDF]

A malicious alarm is when a person intentionally sends in a false report of a fire. This causes emergency crews (Athens Fire Department and OU Police Department) to expend time and effort in responding to a non-existing situation. False alarms kill. It has been documented by numerous fire agencies around the country that a number of fire departments responding to false alarms have been involved in accidents while responding to such reports, which resulted in firefighters being killed or injured, and vehicles and equipment damaged. It is this kind of alarm that causes the most concern and is prosecuted whenever possible. Firefighters may be delayed in responding to a real emergency where lives are at stake. False alarms also create apathy towards real fire alarms, causing occupants to not take alarm seriously.

The fire detection systems in Ohio facilities are designed to respond to a condition of smoke and/or heat. How does a smoke detector work? When a foreign object or substance enters the inner chamber of a smoke detector, it activates the detector's sensor, which sends a signal to the fire alarm control panel and sets off the fire alarm. However, a smoke detector cannot distinguish the differences in smoke, hair spray, dust, insects, and water.

Many fire alarm systems on campus are connected to a central receiving panel that is monitored 24 hours-a-day by the Ohio Police Department. When a fire alarm goes off in a campus building, the dispatcher immediately knows which building. Then it's a quick call to the Athens Fire Department. Each call is taken seriously and response occurs within a few minutes. In buildings that are not connected to OUPD, we rely on building occupants to call 911 and report the alarm. An upgrade process has begun to improve many of these building's fire alarms so they will report to OUPD.

Fortunately, the cause of most fire alarms is not fire, but something else. Causes can be accidental (somebody bumping into a fire alarm device, a worker spray painting, sawing/sanding wood, or welding too close to a detector), unintentional (dust or insects the detector sees as smoke, or a smoke detector too close to a kitchen area, or water that leaks into a detector), mechanical (a malfunctioning system--usually when a new system is being installed, an electrical storm, or a faulty wire), or malicious (intentionally setting off the alarm). Learn more about How To Live With Your Fire Alarm System [PDF].

Below is a list of common causes of fire alarms on the OHIO Campus responded to by Athens Fire Department:

  • Burnt popcorn
  • Smoke from an outside ash can set off detector inside building
  • Smoke detector activated by fog machine
  • Dirt in smoke detector
  • Smoking in room or stairwell
  • Activation of a pull box (malicious alarm)
  • Burning incense in room
  • Manual pull station
  • Smoke detector, unknown cause
  • Bread maker
  • Hair dryers
  • Set off by floor buffer
  • Outside cigarette smoke entered building
  • Fire from candles
  • Burnt food
  • Detector damaged
  • Fire, curling iron left turned on
  • Smoking in the building
  • Freshener sprayed directly into or near smoke detector

Most of these alarms were caused by carelessness. Workers and occupants need to be more aware of what activity will likely set off a fire alarm. In several cases, however, it was a good thing the fire alarm went off--calling attention to a situation that could have been very damaging if not caught in time.

The number of fire alarms on campus could be greatly reduced if we just pay more attention to our surroundings and what we are doing. Fire alarms disrupt campus life: classes, labs, special activities, office activity, sleep, etc. It is the goal of the Safety Department and Facilities Management to reduce the number of fire alarms on campus through education, maintenance of alarm systems, and a smoke detector cleaning program.

Please help do your part to help reduce fire alarms.

For Residence Life staff only: Fire Alarm Incident Report [PDF]