There are so many unnecessary alarms in Rockland County that the Fire Chiefs Association and Office of Fire and Emergency Services have embarked on a campaign to stop them before they go off. In this series, Patch takes a look at the causes, the consequences, and ways to change. Today: What's the Problem?
Between 2009 and 2012, one out of every three calls local volunteer firefighters responded to was unnecessary.
"The volunteer fire departments in Rockland are getting overwhelmed with tons of false fire alarms," said Chris Kear, the county's deputy fire coordinator. "These responses are a waste of resources, money and volunteers' time. In 2012 alone, there were 2,905 recorded false fire calls! Way too many."
How is this happening?
In those years, 15 percent of the false alarms were caused by contractors, working either in homes or in commercial properties.
The rest were caused by a whole host of things: malfunction of fire alarm and sprinkler systems, malicious activations such as alarm pull boxes being pulled, defective smoke and heat detectors, problems with fire alarm panels, or aging alarm systems.
Human error—the contractor who doesn't shut off the system before starting to work, the cooking mishaps—count for a lot of the unnecessary alarms.
"The call that drives me crazy," said Harold Straut, Former Chief and Commissioner of Nanuet Fire Department and Fire Inspector for the Town of Clarkstown, "Any clothing store. You know how they have the portable steam machines to get wrinkles out of clothes? They use them under the detector."
What affect does all this have on the county's fire services?
- Increased risk to firefighters and citizens. In 2010, 19 percent of all firefighter deaths occurred during the response or returning from a fire call. When firefighters are in the response or in returning phases from any call, they are at risk. In addition, it puts the community at risk by exposing them to the risks associated with responding to and returning from calls.
- Every time a fire department responds to a fire call it costs money. This can come in the use of fuel for the apparatus and the wear and tear on the apparatus and equipment themselves. In addition to the cost to taxpayers, the volunteer firefighters incur personal costs on the use of their personal vehicles.
- Responding to alarms which are deemed unnecessary can also influence the overall safety of the community by diverting fire department resources from actual emergencies.
- Increased false alarms have a negative effect on morale. Volunteers who join fire departments do so to serve and protect their community. The majority are very dedicated. Responding to false alarms, many of which are avoidable, is discouraging. That can affect their prompt and consistent response to fire alarms.
- An unintended consequence of responding to false alarms is that it can create complacency amongst the volunteers.
Last and most important: it's a dangerous waste of the firefighters' time.
Rockland County is 100 percent volunteer. That's important: fire services cost communities money (but paid services cost much more).
False alarms pull your neighbors away from their personal lives, work or school, wear them out, and put them at risk. Unnecessarily.
Next in this series: Prevention is about education.