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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.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • Chip Comstock

    We disagree on this one my learned colleague.  I would not proceed with lights and sirens because the chance that there is an actual emergency is slight, but the chance for an MVA enroute is great. I think that it would be difficult explaining the need for an emergency response, after an express cancellation, to a jury.  Likewise, I could easily blame the alarm company or building owner if they cancelled the response.  No jury is going to blame a FD that has a delayed response because they were cancelled (but continued in a non-emergency response).  And even if there was a lawsuit, how do you prove the damages arising from a delayed response? 

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Counsellor

      We do indeed disagree – which is probably a first. Using lights and sirens should not place people at undue risk. PERIOD! If you do not accept that premise – then certainly there is no hope that we will agree.

      Using lights and sirens does not authorize reckless or unsafe driving, running red lights or stop signs without due care, speeding at much higher than the posted speed limit, etc. etc. When done properly – emergency response driving should be marginally riskier (if that) compared with normal driving – which is not without risks either.

      If driving with lights and sirens CREATES an EXTREME risk of harm to firefighters and civilians – then that needs to be addressed as a separate issue. It should be dealt with through training and monitoring of drivers and officers to ensure that reckless or dangerous driving is stopped.

      It is the marginal risk that warrants reducing the number of apparatus responding with lights and siren.

      As for blaming someone else for the cancellation – such as the alarm company or the building owners… put the fire chief on the stand and answer a few questions:

      Sir, you are the fire chief, correct?

      You were dispatched to 123 Main Street on October 30, 2013, for a fire alarm, correct?

      The purpose of the fire alarm is to alert the fire department and building occupants to a possible fire, correct?

      And the fire alarm is required by law for that building, isn't it?

      You have a great deal of training and experience in investigating and extinguishing fires, correct?

      Can you tell the jury how much training and experience the building owner had in investigating and extinguishing fires at the time when he called to cancel you?

      That is assuming it was cancelled by the actual building owner… not some nitwit with a scanner and a few too many beers on board.

      When it comes to cancellations, a balance has to be struck. Some departments may choose to have everyone respond with normal traffic. Some departments may choose to continue to have everyone respond with lights and sirens. That is fine. Just have a policy that tells your personnel what you expect them to do – and don't leave it up to them to guess. My opinion is to have enough personnel respond with lights and siren to investigate the problem and have the balance respond with normal traffic.

      BTW – I can't make our web-radio show tonight (barring a flight cancellation) – but I am sure this issue will come up!!!!

  • http://ronayotte@verizon.net Ron Ayotte

    If we get a call form the alram company or a homeonwer stating it was a false alarm, system malfunction, etc. we will continue 1 unit to the call and it is the IC' s decision to have everyone else on the initial alrm respond n non emeregency mode or to return to quarters.

  • http://www.TigerSchmittendorf.com Tiger Schmittendorf

    As far as the "Go-No Go" part of the decision process, in New York State, General Municipal Law 204-d details the duties of the fire chief to "…in addition to any other duties assigned to him by law or contract, to the extent reasonably possible determine or cause to be determined the cause of each fire or explosion which the fire department or company has been called to suppress. – See more at: http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/GMU/10/204-d#sthash.oRaU7ECO.dpuf

    http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/GMU/10/204-d

  • Mark Gerano

    Curt:  I hate to take another angle, but would love to hear your thoughts.  What happens when the FD ties up units on an alarm that is most likely a false alarm and then is dispatched to a second call, where there is a confirmed issue?  I think this needs addressed by policy, but the situation is problematic for the company officer.  Does the CO divert from the call that is most likely false, and respond to the call that is likely something real?  Or does the CO continue to the false on the slim chance there is something going on? Any thoughts? Take care,  Mark G.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Mark

      Been there… done that… made mistakes both ways… seen others get themselves in trouble doing it… and seen lives saved by doing it.

      The problem is we are not fortune tellers. If you clear from one run applying Chip's logic – it CAN come back and bite you… it's not likely… but it can (and has) backfire. Its an issue that goes beyond alarm cancellations. It goes to medical runs (do we divert an ALS ambulance from a frequent flyer to a child choking) to fires (do we hustle thru overhaul at one fire to get back in service for a second fire), to balancing CO alarms with what appears to be a more pressing emergency.

      Our dispatch priority has always been first come first served… Should that be revisited? Law enforcement has been relatively successful with different priorities and perhaps there is some merit in considering it. I'd say – go slow.

  • http://twitter.com/firehat firehat

    In my area many departments have drawn a distinction between occupants canceling an alarm directly and alarm companies canceling the alarm. Many will simply return to service if the alarm company calls with the disregard but will continue if an occupant calls the FD directly. The premise being that the alarm company has the liability. 

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Sir, you are the fire chief, correct?

      You were dispatched to 123 Main Street on October 30, 2013, for a fire alarm, correct?

      And 123 Main Street is in your community, isn’t that correct?

      You take your job as fire chief seriously, don’t you Chief?

      And as part of taking your job seriously, you are familiar with your community, aren’t you?

      That is because knowing your community is an important part of protecting it, isn't that right?

      So you are familiar with where in the community 123 Main Street is?

      Now let’s talk about the fire alarm. The purpose of the fire alarm is to alert the fire department and building occupants to a possible fire, correct?

      And the fire alarm is required by law for that building, isn't it?

      And your department helps to enforce that law, correct?

      The law requires that fire alarms be installed and functional in buildings such as 123 Main Street because they are an important life saving device, correct?

      In fact if someone tampered with that fire alarm, they could be cited, couldn't they?

      Someone could be cited because fire alarms are serious business, correct?

      You have a great deal of training and experience in investigating and extinguishing fires, correct?

      Can you tell the jury how much training and experience the person from the alarm company who cancelled you had in investigating and extinguishing fires at the time when he called to cancel you?

      Can you tell the jury whether the person from the alarm company who cancelled you was familiar with 123 Main Street?

      So when you cancelled all units responding to 123 Main Street you didn't know if the person from the alarm company who cancelled you knew if the building was occupied or not? Had elderly residents or not? Had disabled people or not? Had children sleeping in their cribs? Had a real fire burning? Because the only way someone could possibly know that was if they physically went to 123 Main Street and investigated, isn’t that correct?

      Did you have any idea what state the person from the alarm company who cancelled you was located in? What criteria he was using to decide whether to cancel you? What training he had? Whether he had any training at all?

      Chief, isn't it true that at the time you cancelled the response to 123 Main Street you do not even know if the person actually worked for the alarm company? Nor had you even spoken with that person personally?

      I could go on but hopefully you get my point. If you think somehow we can slough-off our responsibility to respond and investigate an alarm on a minimum-wage alarm company telephone operator, you are sadly mistaken.

      Liability is not like a football we can pass to someone. In fact, we should not even be thinking about liability in that way. It needs to be about doing things right. If we do things right, the liability issues take care of themselves.

  • Jeff Burkhart

    this is an interesting topic that comes up from time to time.  There are some valid points made both ways.  Several factors need to be taken into account here but the biggest one is how is the alarm cancelled?  Is it done through an alarm company who requires a passcode from  the alarm holder?  if this is the case where 'from the alarm company, proper code was given and requests a cancel' then I can see it.  This would eliminatethe concerns for some scanner land who ha to make false cancellations.  Then, you get the issue of you respond and the property owner has left because they cancelled the alarm and had someplace to be.  Now what?, how long do you wait for key holder? just yet another twist!

  • Mark Gerano

    Good afternoon:

    I have been keeping up on this discussion because I find this issue interesting.

    As a non-legally oriented alternative, some communities are being proactive through the use of traffic light detection and GPS to make even a routine response nearly as fast as an emergency response. 

    In these communities, trucks have a GPS system that tied into the traffic lights so that anytime a FD vehicle on a run is approaching, with or without lights/sirens, the system gives the emergency vehicle a green light and clears traffic.

    It seems like an approach like this, although it would require some work on the front end, would be the gold standard and might take care of both problems.  With this type of a system, units can respond non-emergency and arrive literally within seconds of the time they would have arrived with lights and sirens.

    If something like this were possible, it seems that the scale tilts toward shutting down the lights and sirens upon cancellation, and continuing.  It seems that risk of an accident would outweigh the very small difference in response time.

    Mark

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Mark

      Great points and a community that has such a system would certainly be wise to consider having all units respond with normal traffic once a verified cancellation has been made. So would a community that has few traffic lights and seldom experiences traffic gridlock.

      However, in a major city – it could take twenty minutes or more to go a quarter mile at rush hour. Many smaller communities regularly have gridlock conditions for other reasons (here in RI it is often beach traffic). Prohibiting the use of lights and siren for cancellations could result in companies taking an excessive period of time to arrive as they wait in traffic.

  • Chris

    Our department was getting swamped with call in fire alarms. We finally adjusted our response to what seems to get the best of both worlds. Provided no one calls to say there is evidence of a fire:

    High risk alarms (hospitals, nursing homes, etc) get a full response with only the lead truck responding Code 3 (lights and sirens) all others respond Code 1 (non-emergency)

    Other alarms (houses, businesses) get only one truck Code 3.

    While we are responding, the alarm company is attempting to contact someone on site to confirm what's going on.

    Usually while responding we hear the dispatchers tell us, "E11 the alarm company is advising that the people on premises are reporting accidental alarm. Cut back to Code 1 to confirm."

    Usually we arrive and the people on site say something like "we had dust stirred up by workers and we tried to cancel you." I tell them we always respond to confirm.

    I would hazard a guess and state that well over 75% of our call in fire alarms are due to something other than a fire/smoke. (Dust from workers, faulty detector, mischief, etc. Our department takes into account the risk of not sending a full alarm Code 3 and balances it by using a little common sense (Wow, I never thought I would say that about my department!). Everybody gets at least one truck and we can always ramp things up or down based on information we receive.

    Someone mentioned "what happens if we are on a false alarm and another one comes in?" This is no different than being on a medical call/food on the stove/cat in the tree/MVA or any other call when another one comes in. My crew can only respond to one call at a time (unless there are multiple events at one loaction;-). If a Chief wants to alter our response and say "go to this instead and we'll get somebody else for that," that's on him. That's why he gets the big bucks!

    What it boils down to is we never know what ANY call actually involves until we get "turn out boots on the ground" (to coin a phrase.)

    • Chris

      Talk about timing! Right as I hit the post button, we got a call in alarm! One truck response. The business had trouble with their system, no fire.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Chris

      Sounds like a sound policy based upon local conditions and adjusted as necessary based upon experience. In other words it is what a reasonably prudent fire chief/fire department would do under the cricumstances – its defensible… Whether its an apparatus accident or a fire that occurs and prompts a lawsuit – its is defensible.

      The bigger problem that is harder to defend is where there is no policy – and folks have to "wing-it"… and they wing-it wrong… resulting in an accident or a fire.

  • Chris (a different one)

    As an EMS department, our FD is tiered on VSA and unconcious calls (as rec'd by dispatch). Medics will cancel the FD once on scene and determining that they will not be required. FD continues. The issue here is multifaceted, from exposure to pathogens, patient privacy, apparatus being run unnecessarily etc. Is this a carry over from the cautionary fire responses discussed above? Which, by the way seem a reasonable requirement to confirm the situation at an alarm call.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      The Different Chris

      Interesting question – and assuming that the EMS provider is legally responsible for providing EMS (not the FD) – I see no reason for the FD to continue responding once the EMS provider cancels.

      If the EMS provider is NOT LEGALLY RESPONSIBLE… (ie. the FD is legally responsible by law for EMS and uses the EMS provider to meet the requirement) – its a bit less clear.

      • Chris (a different one)

        Thanks Curt,

        It is the former, and after some discussion, we are going to just educate the medics on the issue, as opposed to complicating response protocols for Fire. Trying to change something can lead to unexpected consequences. FD has said they will degrade the response and do a drive-by, which will address our safety and patient concerns.

        Drive safely.

        • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

          Chris

          I wonder if simply applying ICS would solve the problem.. ie. If EMS arrives on scene first, establishes command, and cancels other responding units… that would seem to solve the issue… wouldn't it?