False alarms are a nightmare for Cheshire firefighters who risk their lives every time they respond. LAURIE STOCKS-MOORE reports
A FIRE engine from Chester fire station rushes to false alarms more than 500 times a year.
On average, it amounts to almost one and a half calls a day and a significant drain on the service.
With the cost of turning out an engine at £1,700, that means more than £850,000 a year is being spent on the wages, fuel and maintenance needed to send firefighters to false call-outs.
But Les Spencer, business liaison manager for Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, says the cost could be much greater – human life.
“Nationally, people have died, both firefighters and the public, while firefighters have been responding to unwanted fire signals.”
He warns that delays in getting to real emergencies could lead to deaths, and that engines present a real danger to the public when they rush at high speed, only to find an alarm has been set off accidentally.
Automatic fire alarms (AFAs) are regularly triggered by anything from cooking fumes to equipment contaminated by dust, smoke from outside, sprays and aerosols, insects and water.
The Chronicle requested figures for the number of false alarms attended by firefighters at Chester Fire Station under the Freedom of Information Act.
They show that in 2005/06, firefighters based at the station in St Anne Street, Chester went to 579 false alarms, dropping to 510 in 2006/07. In the last recorded year there were 513 incidents.
But Mr Spencer says the service is winning the war on false call outs.
He said: “We have reduced it by 33% over the past five years which equates to over 3,000 appliance movements.
“If we have a business premises with two calls or more a month, we will write to them and a fire officer will visit them to see why. That’s how we’ve reduced it as much as we have.
“We’re aiming for another 10% reduction this year which we are on target to do. The big thing for us is we could be needed elsewhere.
“We do a lot of community safety work, giving residents advice and fitting alarms in residential properties. False alarms take us away from doing that.”
One of the most frequent reasons for a false alarm is when dust sets the alarm off. When shops fall victim to this lack of good house-keeping, they are often evacuated, affecting their own business.
The sight of a fire engine parked outside an emptied premises has become a regular scene in Chester city centre and in many cases, dust in the alarm has been blamed.
On hot days, open windows can allow foreign objects, including insects, to get stuck in alarms and complete the circuit.
Mr sPENCER stresses it is in businesses’ own financial interests to ensure their alarms are in full working order.
He said: “An empty office is not a very productive office. If they’re all stood on the car park waiting for a fire engine to arrive they’re not doing any work.
“We don’t want people to be blasé and think ‘oh it’s another false alarm’.
“For some of the major retailers, if a store is closed even for half an hour it can go into multi-thousands of pounds in lost revenue. What we have found is that if they have a problem they soon put it right.”
Peter Walsh, Cheshire Fire Service area manager for Emergency Response, insists the figures show the overall trend is down, and that is due to increased co-operation with the business community.
Last year, Cheshire Fire Service consulted offices, shops, factories, schools and hospitals in a bid to tackle the problem which accounted for 98% of calls to businesses in Cheshire.
Mr Walsh added: “We recognised that the previous system of sending two appliances under blue light conditions put members of the public and our firefighters at more risk.
“We received an excellent response to the consultation and as a result, we now send one fire appliance to AFAs under blue light conditions instead of two, unless more information is received by fire control operators warranting the need for further appliances to attend or if the building is high risk or a heritage building, for example sheltered housing or a hospital.”
Mr Walsh announced the fire service will host a ‘Whatever It Takes’ event with businesses in Chester on August 28. They will talk to proprietors about their responsibility to reduce the number of AFA call outs.
The service has also published guidelines warning appliances cannot be in two places at once and may not be available when a real crisis starts.
“Any delay could mean loss of life or injuries,” it states.