Smoke and heat alarms are the first line of defence in protecting tenants from dwelling fires. It is therefore paramount that neither residents or housing providers simply presume smoke alarms are working. They need to be installed correctly. properly maintained, tested regularly, and never tampered with.
This is with particular consideration of the Fire Statistics for Great Britain (2013-14) which stated that 28% of smoke alarms failed to operate in dwelling fires where an alarm was present. The chief reason (44%) for this was that smoke did not reach the battery powered alarm. Furthermore, between 2014/15, the greatest reason for casualties and fatalities in the home (30% of cases) was due to a missing fire alarm battery.
Tenants may remove batteries or tamper with alarms for a number of reasons. For instance, they may wish to smoke in the premises, or they may wish to silence a nuisance alarm. According to GOV Fire Statistics, the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) attended approximately 214,100 fire false alarms in England during 2015/16, which.constituted 40% of all the incidents they attended inclusively. Therefore nuisance alarms - those that sound erroneously of an emergency - are costly in terms of FRS time and resources, and are dangerous if not responded to appropriately (e.g. by a tenant removing a false alarm).
Smoke alarms can have different types of sensors which can be sensitive to a variety of different stimulus, so a range of things may trigger a false alarm.It is therefore important to ensure that tenants know about the different alarms installed in the premises, the specific sound they make, and ensure they treat every alarm as a serious indicator of a problem. For instance, an alarm may sound if it is part of an interlinked network, in which case the unit triggering the alarm may be in another part of the home. As a result there may be carbon monoxide or a fire in the premises, even if the resident can’t see it.
It is therefore recommended to install an LD2 fire alarm system (outlined in BS 5839 Pt6) whereby alarms are fitted in hallways, landings and high risk rooms such as the kitchen and living rooms. This, in addition to installing interlinked alarms, provides an enhanced level of fire safety and reduced likelihood of false alarms.
The main causes of nuisance alarms are as follows:
- Alarm contamination with an insect/dust
- The battery may be weak, loose, or improperly installed
- The smoke detector might need to be reset
- When the power supply has been interrupted, then restored
- When an alarm is positioned in an inappropriate location
- It is an old alarm (e.g. 10 years or more) and is beeping due to a low battery
To find out more about how to test your smoke alarm, please see our Check The Date page.
Different types of smoke and heat detectors need to be installed in different locations. By installing an appropriate alarm in an appropriate location, this will greatly reduce the risk of a nuisance alarm, and so prevent the likelihood of homeowners removing the alarm battery (or completely removing the alarm).
These are sensitive to small particles of smoke produced by fast flaming fires, such as chip pan fires. As a result, ionisation alarms have a tendency to trigger nuisance alarms from steam and cooking fumes, e.g. toasters. Therefore, as recommended by BS 5839: Pt.6: 2004, ionisation alarms should not be placed near kitchens or bathrooms, but are appropriate for hallways, living rooms and dining rooms.
Optical alarms are more responsive to fires with a long period of smouldering, such as sofa fires ignited by cigarettes. However, they can be less sensitive to fast-flaming fires that initially generate lots of heat but limited smoke plumes. These alarms can be placed near kitchens and in circulation spaces, but not too close to poorly ventilated bathrooms as they are liable to false alarm when exposed to steam.
Multi-sensor combines optical sensing with thermal enhancement (Thermoptek Multi-Sensor), can detect both fast flaming and slow smouldering fires in a single alarm. It is the sensing technology of choice used by over 90% of the UK Fire Rescue Services, as these alarms have a higher responsiveness to fire than traditional single sensor alarms, and are less prone to false alarms associated with the ionisation and the optical alarm types. BS 5839-6 recommends the use of multi-sensor technology in all rooms except the kitchen.
Heat alarms should be installed in kitchens, garages and lofts, as they are solely sensitive to increases in temperature, and will not false alarm as a result of cooking fumes or dust. However, these alarms should not be installed in areas of high humidity, like bathrooms or near dishwashers.
For more information on where to install fire alarms, see our ‘ different types of fire alarms and where to install them’ blog post.
Our latest free download is all about staying safe in the kitchen. Section 1 can be distributed to tenants, friends and family, and section 2 provides guidance for landlords about protecting tenants.
The best mechanism for protecting tenants in the home is always via prevention. Here are some of the key areas to consider when preventing false alarms:
- Ensure appropriate alarm sensors are installed in the correct location
- Make sure you keep a log of the alarms age - See the FireAngel Check The Date campaign for more information.
- Ensure smoke and heat are cleaned every 3 months by the tenant. Make sure they are aware of the process involved e.g. by turning off the mains electricity supply, using a vacuum cleaner fitted with the soft brush attachment (then switching the power back on once finished)
- If you are a housing provider or landlord, it is best practice to combine testing fire alarms alongside any other checks (e.g. electrical or gas safety checks), and encouraging tenants to test their own alarms weekly
- Educate tenants about the danger of removing fire alarm batteries
- Install alarms that prevent tenants tampering e.g.alarms with a 10 year sealed-for-life battery
Whilst private landlord legislation in England only stipulates using battery-powered fire alarms, BS 5839-6 recommends mains-powered alarms with a back-up power supply. This ensures that, should there by an interruption to the power supply, the fire alarms will continue working.
If the tenant is completely sure there is no incidence of fire and has correctly identified the initiating alarm, it is important to refer to the alarms manual, or specific user guide, before taking action.
For FireAngel products, the following applies:
- Low battery - If the alarm is chirping once approximately every 45 seconds and the amber LED is flashing around the same time, then this indicates that the battery is low. The unit should be replaced within 30 days.
For FireAngel Wi-Safe 2 products which are wirelessly interlinked:
- If the alarm is chirping once every 4 hours, it is indicating that another
alarm in the network has entered a low battery condition. Locate the alarm
with the low battery and replace the alarm as soon as possible (before 30 days)
FireAngel products also have a ‘Sleep Easy’ functionality, which allows tenants to silence the low battery ‘chirp’ of a smoke, heat or even a carbon monoxide alarm for up to 8 hours. This is particularly useful if the chirping is occurring at an inconvenient time - for instance, at night - as it will permit a more flexible timeframe for replacement.
For a list of useful resources and diagrams to give to tenants, please see our handouts for landlords page.
Wi-Safe Connect is a cloud-based alarm notification and network management system that utilises Wi-Safe 2 technology to examine the performance of any smoke, heat and carbon monoxide detector within a network, and then reports this fire safety information back to a cloud server.
This Connect platform is highly useful in allowing family members, tenants, or landlords (and even the Fire & Rescue Services) to constantly monitor the alarm activation of a household. This information, in addition to the ability to remotely test devices, will likely reduce behaviours that may impact an alarm’s ability to protect lives. For example, residents ignoring low battery warnings and disabling alarms, It will also highlight high risk tenants that are having numerous repeated alarms due to near misses, who require additional support, whereas previously this volume of alarms could potentially go unnoticed and drain the alarm’s battery and result in the tenant no longer having any protection.
It is essential that all housing providers, specifiers and installers are aware of the dangers of nuisance alarms, as they may lead to tenants removing fire alarms, or removing the smoke alarm batteries. It is therefore paramount to ensure correct alarms are installed in the correct locations and are fully functional at all times, as only these protection to homes, possessions and lives.
If you would like any further information or guidance about fire safety, please get in touch or download our guide to fire safety in the kitchen. Suitable for tenants, homeowners, landlords and social housing providers.