Alarm Cancellations: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

Today’s burning question: When a fire department is dispatched for an automatic alarm and while enroute is told to disregard by the same alarm company, is it necessary for someone from the FD to continue and actually make sure there isn't any problem?

Answer:  I am not aware of any national standard on this issue – but my advice is to have a policy that requires personnel to continue responding with caution to the location as dispatched, with a caveat that (depending on local circumstances) units other than the first in company are to respond with normal traffic (no lights and siren).

We have all heard of firefighters and civilians being killed and injured in apparatus accidents that occur while responding to needless alarms. We have an obligation to address that very real risk – so when we receive a request to cancel it would be imprudent to ignore it as if it had never been made.

However, we cannot simply abandon that initial request for assistance that we recieved. A case in point is one out of New Hampshire that a friend of mine told me about – but one that I have not been able to fully confirm.

Reportedly, in the middle of a blizzard a fire alarm came in from an unsprinklered hotel. The hotel called dispatch, reported that smoke from a fireplace set off a smoke detector, and that there was no need for the fire department to respond. Apparently hotel staff was aware that a fireplace log had rolled out of a fireplace in the lobby for a brief moment and was quickly returned to the fireplace. They assumed that smoke from the log set off a smoke detector and was the cause of the alarm. Under the circumstances the hotel did not want the fire department to rush out there.

Dispatch in turn notified the fire chief who cancelled everyone but himself. When he arrived he noticed some smoke in the lobby. Upon further investigation he discovered a working fire in a different area that was the source of the smoke. He promptly requested that units again respond but the fire ended up causing a great deal of damage. The fire also led to a lawsuit against the department.

Whether the case is true or not – it points out the danger of taking someone’s word about the need for the fire department to be cancelled. A fire department that stops responding – and accepts a cancellation request – is placed in an indefensible position if the person requesting the cancellation turns out to be wrong. There is also the risk that someone may maliciously intend to slow our response – a concern that poses even greater issues.

You will notice that my advice is to keep the first in company responding with lights and siren albeit with caution, but have the additional responding companies respond with normal traffic (no lights and siren). There are many circumstances where limiting emergency response to the first in company may not be advisable, such as understaffed apparatus, high-hazard buildings, long responses, high rise buildings, etc. Each department needs to balance the need to minimize the risks associated with unnecessary emergency response driving with need to ensure that adequate resources will be able to promptly and competently investigate the alarm.

No matter what, we are walking a thin line between two possible types of liability: negligence for needlessly endangering firefighters and civilians by responding to an alarm that we have been requested to cancel our response; and negligence for taking the word of some unknown person with unknown skills, abilities, competency, and motives about the fact that we are not needed at an emergency to which we have been summoned.

Incidentally, for the readers out there from NH – I have searched long and hard for confirmation of this incident and the subsequent lawsuit. If anyone has details, or can point me toward someone who has details, I would be very much obliged if you would let me know.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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