False alarms

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A new firefighters' policy, coupled with changes in legislation, mean that requirements and obligations relating to fire protection today are very different from only a few years ago, as Derrick Hall explains.

Measures recently introduced by the Chief Fire Officers' Association to address the perennial problem of false alarms generated by automatic fire protection systems are likely to have significant implications for the insurance industry.

False alarms are a major problem" not only do they waste the costly resources of the Fire and Rescue Service, but investigating them also ties up fire tenders and officers who may, as a consequence, be prevented from dealing with genuine fires. In addition, the level of false alarms is much higher than might be expected" the healthcare sector alone generates around 90 000 false alarm calls to the FRS every year.

Unsurprisingly, the CFOA is taking a tough line on this issue and has introduced a policy relating to premises that are a persistent source of false alarms. The latest version of this policy was introduced a year ago, on 1 October 2008, and its key provision is that it permits a reduced level of response to automatically generated alarms in buildings that have a poor track record on false alarms.

 

Non-emergency conditions

Under normal circumstances, the FRS typically despatches fire tenders under emergency 'flashing blue light' conditions in response to an alarm. For buildings with poor false alarm records, there is now an option for this response to be reduced, as a first step, to the despatch of tenders under non-emergency conditions. This means no blue light, so the tenders may experience traffic delays, and it also means the tenders can be recalled to deal with a confirmed emergency.

If the false alarm problem with a building continues or gets worse after the FRS has implemented this first step, it can reduce its response even further. In such cases, no tenders at all are despatched when an automatic alarm is received. Instead, a fire officer is sent to investigate before further action is taken.

These reduced levels of response are very likely to introduce significant delays in dealing with a genuine fire in the premises, allowing it to do more damage before it is finally tackled. Insurers may well be minded, therefore, either to increase the cost of cover, or to deny cover entirely for buildings that the FRS has identified as being regular sources of false alarms.

The CFOA policy is not the only major change that is having a big effect on the provision of fire protection for buildings. Although it has now been in force for three years, the full impact of the Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order has only recently started to be felt. The RRFSO enshrines in law the principle that the responsibility for ensuring adequate fire safety measures are in place rests with the user of the premises.

The RRFSO includes the concept of a 'responsible person' who will be called to account if fire safety provisions are found to be inadequate. Often, but not always, this is a landlord or an employer. The duties of the responsible person include arranging for risk assessments to be carried out by competent persons and ensuring the proper maintenance of fire protection systems. Tough penalties are available for dealing with cases where these duties are not properly performed, and these penalties are no idle threats.

 

Adequate protection

For example, a care home company based in Weybridge, Surrey was recently fined £80 000, plus £20 000 costs, when a fire in a boiler room was shown to have been caused by a build-up of waste and the inappropriate storage of material. Also, staff had not been properly informed about the results of a fire risk assessment. In another case, the director of a property company was jailed for four months and his company fined £20 000 plus £8000 costs for offences under the RRFSO that led to a tenant dying in a fire at one of the company's properties.

It is in the interests of all parties for buildings to be adequately protected against fire, and insurers are in a strong position to ensure that their policyholders provide appropriate protection. Of course, some policyholders will require assistance and, in these cases, it may be useful to recommend the services of an accredited fire protection expert.

 

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