Thousands of false alarms tackled by Cambridgeshire firefighters as malicious callers put ‘lives in danger’

Cambridgeshire fire crews responded to thousands of false alarms in the last year, including dozens from malicious hoaxers putting lives in ‘serious danger’.

Monday, 1st March 2021, 5:03 am
Cambridgeshire fire crews responded to thousands of false alarms in a year, including dozens from malicious hoaxers putting lives in ‘serious danger’. Photo: PA EMN-210225-125636001

The Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service responded to a higher proportion of false calls than any other fire brigade in the country, according to new figures.

Home Office data shows that the county’s fire service has suffered the biggest share of its time wasted as more than half of all incidents attended by the Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service in the year to September 2020 stemmed from false alarms.

Most were caused by faulty equipment or the accidental activation of smoke alarms and sprinkler systems.

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Of the rest, 34 per cent were raised by people with good intentions, while 44 ‘malicious’ incidents were linked to hoax calls or alarms being set off where there was no fire.

The National Fire Chiefs Council said false alarms happened “approximately every two minutes” across England and cost services thousands of hours of lost productivity – “time that could be spent on other vital, and often life-saving activities”.

In Cambridgeshire, 52 per cent of all calls attended over 12 months were false alarms, while more than 226,000 were logged nationally, including over 5,500 malicious incidents.

NFCC chair, Roy Wilsher, described the figures as shocking and said malicious callers could prevent crews from attending incidents where people were in serious danger.

He added: “People making these reckless calls need to ask themselves what would happen if a member of their family needed emergency assistance and firefighters were attending a malicious call.

“We need to see this change.”

Cambridgeshire fire service says that by limiting the amount of time spent dealing with unnecessary calls to false alarms, they can improve their performance.

They state: “We closely monitor the level of unwanted fire signals (UFSs) from all premises and will contact or visit those premises which create a large number of UFSs. Where possible, by working in partnership with the premises, action plans to reduce the level of UFSs will be discussed, but where a premises shows little interest or improvement in reducing UFSs, it may be appropriate to instigate enforcement activities against the premises, under the current legislation.

“Firefighters also give advice to premises owners if they are called to an automatic fire alarm and it is a false alarm.”

The service points to Addenbrookes Hospital as an example as it had for many years been responsible for between 250 and 300 UFSs per year. The on-site fire safety team were in the process of considering a review of the way that calls were passed from the premises to the fire service in an effort to reduce this number. It was agreed that an investigation time was appropriate as well as a grading of response from the fire service.

For example, if one automatic smoke detector activated, the fire service would not be called immediately (the on site fire safety team would first investigate). However, if two detectors activated or a manual break-glass call point was activated, this would instigate an immediate response. Since the implementation of the new policy, calls to the fire service have been reduced to around 70 per year.

The fire service said: “Unwanted fire signals place a large burden on our resources by unnecessarily tying up our fire engines and firefighters at false alarms, when they may be needed at a real emergency such as a fire or road traffic collision. They impact on vital firefighter training as well as disrupting important community safety work. They also cause firefighters who work the retained duty system to be needlessly called away from their normal place of work.”

They add: “Every time the alarm sounds, staff in a business have to down tools and evacuate the building. This may prove to be very costly not only in financial terms, but also because staff will become complacent and will lose faith in the fire alarm system if they are constantly required to leave the building due to a false alarm. They also impact on employers who allow their employees on the retained duty system to leave work and attend fire calls and in the case of UFSs, the call out turns out to be unnecessary.”

If your premises has a problem with repeat false fire alarm activations or you would like to discuss the issue of UFSs, contact the fire service.

In a policy change, Cambridgeshire Fire and rescue service crews only go out to business fire alarms during weekday office hours if confirmed by a 999 call.

During the evenings and weekends, they continue to attend all fire alarm activations.

Buildings exempt from the changes include those with a threat to life or of historical importance, including, but not limited to: hospitals, residential care, flats above four storey and houses in multiple occupation.

Prior to 2013, 98 per cent of all automatic fire alarms attended by the county’s fire service turned out to be false alarms.

A Home Office spokesperson warned hoaxers that they could face prosecution, adding: “Malicious false alarms take our firefighters away from front line work, protecting our communities and potentially saving lives.

“They can amount to a criminal offence and we support the prosecution of these incidents where appropriate.”

Over the course of ten years, the number of false calls has dropped by more than a fifth but in 2020 they still represented more than 40 per cent of all incidents attended by 45 fire services, while actual fires accounted for just 28 per cent.

Almost two-thirds nationally were due to fire alarms or related equipment malfunctioning or being accidentally set off, while almost a third were raised by people who genuinely thought there was an emergency.

‘Burnt toast’ or general cooking mishaps were behind almost a quarter of all false alarms, with more than 32,000 attributed to faulty smoke alarms and 177, bizarrely, linked to animals.

The Home Office said fire prevention was “core business” for every service and that officers used experience and local intelligence to decide what interventions would best prevent and reduce the risk of fire in their communities.

A number of fire brigades have introduced charging policies in an effort to recover the costs of attending persistent false alarms at hotspots such as hospitals, student halls of residence and airports.

Charges, which differ from service to service, are usually restricted to non-residential facilities and can cost repeat offenders hundreds of pounds for a call-out.