Las Vegas Sun

November 14, 2018

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Fire alarm doesn’t mean fire department is coming

Henderson joins Vegas in ignoring some calls

Fred Kurtzman has had an ADT alarm since he moved into his Henderson home nearly two years ago.

He’s dutifully paid his $60 monthly fee for peace of mind, although he has never actually needed the security system. In fact, the only time it went off was when his cat jarred loose a back door.

But last month he learned his system would provide much less protection than he thought. A letter from ADT informed him that the Henderson Fire Department would no longer respond to the system’s fire alarm until there is “visual verification of a fire.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Kurtzman, 60. “I really just couldn’t believe they would not respond.”

Henderson isn’t the first local department to stop responding to automatic fire alarms. Las Vegas Fire and Rescue adopted that policy in 2003.

The departments will not respond to calls from security companies unless the resident or someone else sees or smells smoke. Previously, an alarm was sufficient to trigger a call from the security company to the fire department for response.

Steven Goble, a Henderson deputy fire chief, said 99.994 percent of 4,019 calls prompted by automatic alarms were false during a three-year period ending last May. None of the calls needed fire suppression, but they resulted in 16,000 man-hours costing more than $400,000, he said. (Those figures, however, reflect normal staff salaries that would be paid and hours that would be worked regardless.)

“All of the time that a fire engine spends responding to a false alarm is time that fire engine is not available to respond to true emergencies,” he said.

The departments still respond to automatic alarms at schools, health care facilities and government buildings. Henderson also responds to water flow alarms, which indicate a sprinkler system has been activated.

None of this sits well with Kurtzman.

“It’s cheaper to let a few people die than to send the firetrucks out,” he said.

Fire officials insist that’s not how they view the matter.

In addition to cost issues, they say, safety is a concern. Huge trucks and ambulances racing to the scene can be a hazard not only for rescuers but other drivers.

Reducing the number of false-alarm responses reduces the risk to residents and firefighters, Goble said.

Tim Szymanski, a spokesman for the Las Vegas department, noted that before changing its policy four years ago the department often would respond multiple times to the same faulty alarm — at a cost of $1,250 per response. (Again, most of that cost simply reflects routine salary and equipment expenses.)

“It’s no different than a person standing in front of the house yelling, ‘Fire,’ ” he said.

Some cities across the country fine residents or alarm companies for false alarms that draw a response.

But Goble noted that such programs require effort and time to determine who is at fault, not to mention following up to make sure the fines are paid.

Szymanski said his department has received calls from agencies across the county that want to implement similar policies.

Kurtzman, though, questions what would happen if he were out of town or, in a worst-case scenario, if he and his wife were unconscious in their burning home.

In that circumstance, ADT would call the home and nobody would answer — and the Fire Department would not respond.

“It’s scary,” said Kurtzman, who lives off College Drive in one of the more rural sections of Henderson. “Where we live, a neighbor wouldn’t see a fire until it was through the roof.”

The Clark County Fire Department continues to respond to all alarms.

“There’s always that ‘what if,’ ” said Scott Allison, a county Fire Department spokesman.

The what-ifs don’t concern Henderson and Las Vegas as much. The automatic alarms have never notified the Henderson department of a blaze that it didn’t hear about from passers-by or residents.

Szymanski said the Las Vegas department has had no problems since implementing its policy.

In addition, the city attorney signed off on the changes.

Even so, it all sounds outrageous to Kurtzman.

“There are certain priorities,” he said. “I’m just concerned as a citizen that lives are going to be lost so they can do things on the cheap.”

Statement from Henderson Deputy Fire Chief Steven Goble on fire alarms

Here are the basics of our fire alarm response policy:

In June of 2007 we adopted a fire alarm response policy that states that the Henderson Fire Department will not respond to unverified automatic fire alarms. The exceptions to this policy are schools, hospitals (and other care facilities), and government installations. We continue to respond to water flow alarms which are indicators that a sprinkler head has activated in occupancy. We have found that water flow alarms are a reliable indicator of whether or not a fire is present. Whenever we receive a call from a person that sees, smells, or otherwise senses that there might be a smoke/fire problem we respond immediately; we consider that verified. In October 2007, our City adopted a fire code that reflects that policy.

We came to this decision based on two factors. First, fire alarms that are reported by central alarm monitoring companies are not reliable indicators of a fire problem. We have three years of data the indicates that 99.994 % of the calls that we received in our dispatch center from June 1, 2004 to May 31, 2007 from central alarm monitoring companies were false alarms or did not require action by our fire crews. Of the remaining .006%, half were at facilities that are unaffected by our change in policy (schools, hospitals, etc.) The nearly all of the remaining .003% was due to cooking errors and did not require fire suppression. The rest of these calls were for smoke generated by other means – none which required fire suppression. This is a significant problem that required thousands of man hours to address. All of the time that a fire engine spends responding to a false alarm is time that that fire engine is not available to respond to true emergencies.

The second issue is one of safety for our community and our responders. Whenever we respond to a fire we respond with lights and sirens, almost half of all fire fighter fatalities in America each year are a result of vehicle accidents. When fire apparatus are involved in accidents innocent members of the community are often involved. This point was driven home with our fire department back in June when one of our fire ambulances was responding to fire and was involved in a significant traffic accident. The ambulance was struck, rolled onto its side, and caught fire. This was the trigger that caused another fire department in our valley to finally address this problem back in 2003. Unfortunately, a firefighter from the valley suffered a devastating injury when the fire engine that he was riding in rolled over while responding to a false alarm. By reducing the number of false alarm responses, we reduce our vulnerability in this area.

We strongly believe that our policy benefits our community. The statistics show that fire alarm calls from a monitoring company are not reliable indicators of fire. Our policy allows us to keep our fire and emergency medical crews available to respond to true emergencies. We believe that the risk of heavy fire apparatus responding to a call that less than 99.994% of the time is a false alarm does not justify the risk to the community or our firefighters.

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