“False” alarms make up more than 10% of the Ridgefield Fire Department’s call volume, but firefighters have to treat each alarm as if it’s the real deal.
“We’re trained to prepare for the worst in every call,” said fire Capt. David McDevitt.
The department responds to alarms caused by malfunctioning alarms or, more often, properly functioning alarms that have been triggered by steam from a shower or smoke from burnt toast quite frequently — around 371 times in 2010 and 459 times in 2012. That’s about 12% of their total calls for fire and medical emergencies, and Chief Heather Burford suspects it’s actually a bit higher.
Chief Burford said the percentage of automated alarm calls that are not actual emergencies is in the high 90s.
In fact, they are so prevalent that she has slightly modified the way the department responds to automated alarm systems.
The previous “response profile” for alarms with no additional information was to have two fire engines, one from each station, respond with “lights and sirens.”
“We did a risk-benefit analysis,” Chief Burford said. “It’s very dangerous for the firefighters to be traveling lights and siren. It’s dangerous for the public because they don’t always know how to react.”
Now the protocol is to send the engine from the nearest station with lights flashing and sirens, and dispatch the farther engine to travel with the normal flow of traffic — unless there turns out to be a real emergency and the incident status is elevated.
Chief Burford said false alarms are high in Ridgefield, in part because more people have automated alarm systems than in most towns.
“Because of the nature of our community, we tend to have more automatic fire alarm systems, and that has to do with money … the size of the homes,” she said.
“When we’re tied up on an automatic alarm that is not an urgent situation, then we’re not available for some other call — and that is always our big fear.”
Chief Burford said making sure alarms are properly installed and configured is key, and there is often a period with newly installed alarm systems where the kinks have to be worked out. She said the systems should be taken off-line during activity like home renovations that kick up dust that may trigger alarms. It also means having a way for the alarm system to try calling the homeowner before calling police or firefighters to make sure the alarm wasn’t triggered by accident.
People with alarms should also register their systems with the Fire Department, providing contact information for themselves and others.
The town can charge people for false alarm responses, but she said that’s usually not necessary; people tend to correct their mistakes.
Ultimately the department likes the automated systems, but wants to cut down on the false alarms.Alarms can prevent major damage when people aren’t home or otherwise able to call 911 — a case on St. Johns Road in December demonstrated that. The family was in Europe when their alarm detected an electrical fire that could have caused major damage.
“I’d rather go to a nuisance alarm any day,” Capt. McDevitt said.