Automatic fire alarms, false alarms and our Policies

Automatic Fire Alarms

Types of premises

The early warning that Automatic fire alarm and fire detection systems (AFAs) provide can help to save lives and property.

AFAs are often installed in:

  • premises with high risk occupancies
  • premises that handle flammable or hazardous materials
  • premises that have unoccupied or common areas including multi-occupation premises 

However, this list is not comprehensive and AFAs may also be installed in other types of premises not included here.

False alarms

False alarms are a common occurrence when an AFA is installed in a premises. In order to avoid false alarms diverting firefighters away from real emergencies, we manage calls from automatic systems in a specific way.

There are also things occupiers and/or responsible persons can do to reduce the risk of false alarms from their premises.

To learn about these, as well as our policies regarding AFAs, please take a look at the information below. 

What can cause false alarms

False alarms – also referred to as 'unwanted fire signals' – can divert firefighting resources from real fires, erode your confidence in the value and reliability of your automatic fire detection systems and cause costly interruptions to your business.  

False alarms can be caused by a variety of reasons. You will find a comprehensive list of possible causes in 'Working out the cause' below, but some typical causes are:

  • activation of a smoke detector by airborne pollutants
  • vandalism/malicious action
  • human error (generally due to unfamiliarity with the system)
  • faulty or non-maintained equipment

Fortunately, most of these can be eliminated by careful planning.

How to investigate your false alarm

After ensuring there is definitely no fire, follow these steps to find out why there was a false alarm:

  1. Silence the fire alarm, but do not reset the control panel as this will cancel the indications required for investigation purposes.

  2. Check the indications on the control panel and establish the area (zone) of the building where the fire alarm originated from. Your system may also indicate the precise location of the actuated device.

  3. As soon as possible after the unwanted alarm occurred, visit the area and locate the break glass call point, heat or smoke detector that has been actuated.

  4. Attempt to establish the reason why the call point or detector was activated. It is also useful to talk to people who were in the vicinity of the device when the alarm occurred. Ask them if they know what happened and why.

  5. You may need to investigate further to determine the real cause for example, vandalism or accidental damage to a break glass call point or insects entering a smoke detector.

  6. If the activated detector cannot be readily located, it may be that it is fitted in a duct or above a false ceiling. Check to establish if the detector location drawings are available and if so, use these to help locate the detector. Break glass call points should be easier to locate as they should be mounted in clearly visible positions.

  7. If the control panel does not indicate the location of the fire alarm or if there is no activated detector, call in the maintenance company as the problem may be due to an equipment fault.

What to do after you've investigated
  • accurately record all the information relating to the fire alarm incident in the system log book, irrespective of whether it was a genuine or unwanted alarm. This is very important as the information may be needed at a future date
  • if unwanted alarms continue and you cannot find the cause, or attempts to rectify it are unsuccessful, then it is useful to analyse the times at which unwanted alarms occur and the locations from which they originate. This will help to see if there is any pattern, which may help to identify the cause e.g. cooking prior to meal times or a boiler switching on early in the morning.

    For free advice on how to reduce unnecessary fire calls caused by false alarms, please contact our business safety team by:

    Working out the cause

    These investigations and the analysis should point to the unwanted alarms being caused by one or more of the following :

    Human error.

    It is likely that the problem can be overcome by a change of existing practices e.g. the issuing of 'permits to work' or the training of building occupiers Examples of this type of problems are:

    • smoke caused by building contractors undertaking 'hot work' close to smoke or heat detectors
    • alterations to the fire alarm system wiring without isolating the system

    Process induced alarms.

    Many unwanted alarms result from processes undertaken adjacent to fire detectors, particularly smoke detectors, for example burning toast in a toaster. Such unwanted alarms can be remedied by either changing the location of the offending process, changing the detector type or its location, or by changing the way the fire alarm system is configured

    Equipment faults.

    If there are equipment faults, these will need to be discussed with the fire alarm system maintainer and appropriate action taken to remedy them. Effective, regular maintenance, which includes the internal and external cleaning of smoke detectors, will minimise such faults occurring in the first instance

    Malicious actuation.

    This cause can be the most difficult to determine and often requires careful analysis of the occurrences. Examples include:

    • the malicious operation of break glass call points
    • the illicit ownership and use of call point test keys e.g. by school pupils
    • the intentional directing of smoke, e.g. from a cigarette into a smoke detector
    • actuation of an unsecured control panel usually as a result of the control enable key being left in the panel.

    We advise that you consider all these factors in relation to your building and develop a plan to avoid unwanted alarms.

    Guidance for Responsible Persons

    The Fire Industry Association have published helpful Guidance for Responsible Persons regarding the management and ultimate reduction of false fire alarms. This guidance looks at the classification of false alarms, system compliance, action plans, keeping records, maintenance, and more.  

    View or download 'Guidance for Responsible Persons on False Alarm Management of Fire Detection and Alarm Systems' from the Fire Industry Association.

    Please note this Guidance is currently only available in PDF format.

    See below for further Resources.

    Our Policies

    Our Policies are designed to help prevent fires and keep our customers safe. 

    Policy - Automatic fire alarms (AFAs) 

    The Authority receives a large number of calls as a result of automatic fire alarm systems, but over 98% of these calls are known to be false alarms. Calls from automatic fire alarm systems cause a significant disruption to building users and potentially divert firefighters away from incidents where it is confirmed someone’s life is at risk.

    The Authority has had call management processes in place for automatic fire alarm calls for some years and has been successful in reducing the number of false alarms. From April 2012 these arrangements were strengthened further and as a result all calls reporting an automatic fire alarm sounding are challenged and filtered by the Authority’s control employees. For the majority of premises, the caller is asked to confirm if there is a fire or signs of a fire before the Authority will send an emergency response.

    This policy is applicable to all Members in relation to their role in performance scrutiny and all employees in terms of application of the policy by the Authority. 

    Legal consequences

    Effective management of calls relating to Automatic Fire Alarms relies on clear policy and procedures as well as appropriate training and experience to allow call handlers to make appropriate judgements based on risk.

    Service Policy

    The Authority will call manage all emergency calls relating to automatic fire alarm systems. This means that the Authority will not automatically respond to automatic fire alarm systems but will apply a filtering system to reduce the number of false alarms it attends

    In the majority of premises callers reporting an automatic fire alarm system sounding are required to confirm that there is a fire or signs of fire other than the alarm, before Control employees will mobilise an emergency response.

    The Authority consider a false alarm initially to be a ‘near miss’ when investigating the reason why it may have occurred and will continue to provide advice and support to businesses and premises managers in order that automatic fire alarm systems are well managed so that the number of false alarms continues to decline.

    The Authority will continue to respond to automatic fire alarm incidents over its borders passed to it by other Fire and Rescue Authorities where a mutual aid (Sections 13 and 16) agreement is in place.


    1. The Authority will not normally send any emergency resource to investigate an automatic fire alarm system sounding. If it decides to respond to an automatic fire alarm call it will normally send the same response as it would to a fire.
    2. Callers reporting an automatic fire alarm system sounding via a care-line or callers reporting a self-contained (domestic) smoke alarm sounding will be asked if they can confirm that it is a false alarm. If they are unable to confirm a false alarm then the call will be treated as a fire-call and an emergency response will be sent.
    3. Where the Authority has undertaken an assessment of individual premises which highlights a specific need for a response to automatic fire alarms then callers from that site will be asked if they can confirm that the call is a false alarm. If they are unable to confirm a false alarm then the call will be treated as a fire-call and an emergency response will be sent.
    4. In regards the assessment of individual premises the Authority will take into consideration technological advancements in fire alarm systems that are proven to have a very low error rate, in addition to life risk.

    Roles and responsibilities

    5. All colleagues working in the Authority’s control centre will adhere to the policy set out above and the specific operating procedures relating to their posts.

    6. The Group Manager Service Delivery (specialist teams) will ensure that Control colleagues receive adequate guidance, training and support in order that they can adhere to the automatic fire alarm policy and operating procedures.

    7. The automatic fire alarm policy will be regularly reviewed to ensure its effectiveness in reducing false alarms and managing risk.

    Political leadership

    8. The Authority will review performance against the automatic fire alarm Policy to ensure it supports the objectives set out in the Customer Safety Plan.

    Guidance for Control colleagues

    9. The Automatic Fire Alarm operating procedure provides further guidance for Control colleagues. 


    In addition to the above, the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) have published helpful documents in relation to summoning fire assistance, and reducing false alarms and unwanted signals for premises with automatic fire alarm systems.

    Responsible Persons for premises with an AFA  are encouraged to use these publications as a source of additional information and insight into AFAs and their impact on both businesses and fire and rescue services.  

    CFOA Guidance for the Reduction of False Alarms & Unwanted Fire Signals

    This aim of this guidance in relation to responsible persons is to:

    • 'ensure the AFA system is designed installed, commissioned, managed and maintained in accordance with British Standards so as to minimise the potential for false alarms.
    • establish a level of co-operation with installers and or maintainers and monitors to support the above. 
    • have effective procedures in place so that an alarm actuation is managed appropriately to minimise UwFS calls and ensure, as much as reasonably possible, that a call being passed to FRS is a fire event.
    •  duly consider the appointment of 3rd party certificated professionals as necessary to support comprehensive management of the AFA system and its function.'

    The Guidance considers the impact of false alarms and unwanted fire signals, how fire and rescue services work with Responsible Persons, how calls are handled, and more. 

    Go to the Guidance

    Please note this guidance is currently only available in PDF format.

    Code of Practice Best Practice for Summoning a Fire Response via Fire Alarm Monitoring Organisations

    This Code of Practice is aimed at establishing '... an agreed best practice between Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) and representatives from the industry of Fire Alarm Monitoring Organisations (FAMOs)'.

    It provides '...a framework to assist FRS and FAMOs in the promotion of best practice in fire alarm management by the Responsible Person', and considers both FAMP standards and the principal aims which include 'co-operation with the Responsible Person ... to ensure they have established the process through which an actuation of their alarm system will result in the appropriate response....'.

    Go to the Code of Practice

    Please note this guidance is currently only available in PDF format.