January 1, 2004 by Cyril Hare
In Mississauga, Ontario a few years ago, an alert employee smelled smoke at a large food storage warehouse. With the sprinkler system operating and the alarm bells ringing, he phoned 911 and the fire department duly responded. Firefighters had been on scene for almost half an hour and had brought the fire under control before the alarm company, which monitored the building, called the communications dispatch to report the fire.
The financial loss from the above incident ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars, although fortunately the fire occurred at a time when the building was occupied. If the fire had been after hours, or in an unattended area, the loss would have been significantly greater.
A similar incident occurred in the same municipality a few years later, this time at a nursing home, which resulted in the tragic deaths of eight residents. The fire alarm “com center” was advised of the fire’s outbreak by a telephone call from a building occupant. The call from the occupant was received by the com center before that of the alarm monitoring station. It is a matter of speculation as to whether this delay was a factor in the unfortunate outcome of that fire. Incidents like these happen in every city in North America on an all-too-frequent basis, but usually go unreported.
Most fire departments in urban areas focus on how to shave valuable seconds in response times. New NFPA standards have been developed to establish benchmarks for response times for the fire services once the call has been received at the fire department. Of equal importance is the issue of how long it takes for the information about a fire to reach the dispatch center, and how accurate that information is.
Why the focus on response time? During the first few minutes of a fire outbreak, it grows exponentially – doubling in intensity and temperature every minute. As a result, in a relatively short time period, a smoldering fire can erupt into an inferno endangering both lives and property. Early intervention, and early response, is therefore vital in limiting the potential damage a fire can do.
Not long after the two fire episodes described above occurred, the city of Mississauga and its fire department brought in a program to reduce response times by bringing fire signals directly into the computer aided dispatch system inside the com center. The objective: to reduce response time and improve accuracy by automating some of the key “human” activities in relaying vital information. The project would have no impact on response times when a private citizen phoned in a 911 emergency call because alarm monitoring stations are not involved (fire departments receive thousands of calls each year which are generated by an alarm signal to a monitoring station with a relay call to the fire department).
A pilot project was established with a private vendor to test a direct alarm reporting system connected to the fire department communication. Known initially as “OPEN ACCESS”, it has become better known as “e-DTF” (electronic direct to fire department notification). The “gateway system” works as follows:
a fire alarm signal generated at a building is transmitted to the monitoring station and is electronically re-directed to the fire department’s com center where it is received by a computer;
Trucks are dispatched to the scene;
Usually within one to two minutes, personnel at the monitoring station process the same signal and call the fire department to ensure the signal was received.
As reported in this publication a few years ago (see September 2000 issue of CU), Ottawa conducted a major investigation of fire alarm monitoring practices, including a comparison of e-DTF technology and conventional monitoring. Response time savings from that study were slightly in excess of two minutes, but the true value of e-DTF had never been independently verified.
In 2001, the Mississauga fire department and the private vendor decided to find out for sure. A random sample of 95 premises required by code to have 24-hour monitoring was selected for this test. Care was taken to select from various categories of buildings [high-rise residential, hospitals, schools, industry, etc.] to provide a statistical balance.
The study was conclusive. The average reporting times to the fire department com center were 15.8 seconds for electronic transmission versus 119.4 seconds for “conventional” alarm monitoring. Average processing times within the fire department com center itself were 14.3 seconds versus 25.4 seconds for “conventional reporting” – thus producing a total differential of 114.7 seconds (1 minute, 54.7 seconds).
The accompanying charts indicate total response times for the two methods of testing: e-DTF versus conventional alarm monitoring. The charts show “net figures”, excluding certain anomalies (anomalies occurred in 8 of the 95 sites tested, in other words, in five cases, no call was ever made to the fire department, and it was therefore decided to only “count” instances when things worked as they were “supposed” to work).
While the study did not look for instances of improper monitoring techniques, two additional anecdotes confirmed that conventional alarm monitoring, without the benefit of e-DTF back-up, is subject to delays and error:
During a test in a large high school just three blocks from the nearest fire hall, it took almost nine minutes for the monitoring station to notify the fire department; and
During the test for an elementary school, the monitoring station operator gave the fire department dispatcher the wrong address for the school.
Is there a way to reduce potential risk in all this? A newly published ULC standard will raise the safety bar when it comes to fire alarm monitoring and improving the reliability and responsiveness of services.
Among the new requirements, the standard will require alarm monitoring stations to notify the fire department of an incoming fire signal “within 30 seconds”, and will specifically prohibit the “pre-verification” of fire signals from coded premises – changes designed to maximize early response. As such, insurers should settle for nothing less than strict adherence to the latest standards and codes. Through a certification program, the ULC should greatly aid local fire prevention inspectors in enforcing the rules. But, until such compliance is achieved, insurers should not be beguiled into believing that their insureds are always getting the fastest and most reliable emergency fire response.