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Unwanted Alarms – Building Class 2 or 3 Buildings

By Tracey Wallace 

You have a Fire Indicator Panel on site, the alarm has sounded, and you go to investigate.  Your Fire Indicator panel is connected directly to the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services and now they are on their way to your site.  In a matter of minutes, you need to identify the cause to see if this is something that you can solve. 

Fire Wardens

You can’t work out why the alarm was triggered.  You have been to the location to investigate further but there appears to be no obvious sign of the cause of the alarm.

I’m sure that many of you have been through this experience and feel exhausted by the whole process.  But having the responsibility of ensuring the lives of many people in the complex is something to be taken seriously and regardless of the number of unwanted alarms it is important to be prepared for the emergency.

Queensland Fire Emergency crew are now on site and they have not identified any cause of the fire either.   You shake hands and thank them for their time, and they are gone again.

But wait.  Its not really over yet.  When was the last time you had an unwanted alarm?  Was it in the last 60 days?  Was it more than 60 days? Was there an open flame to determine an emergency situation?

So many questions but it does matter when it comes down to whether you are going to receive an infringement notice.

The Next Steps

fire safety check list

A report is provided by the Station officers to QFES Management.  Management check to see the reason for the alarm.  Was there a “flame” of any type called an emergency situation or just burnt toast with the smoke setting off the alarm.  Are you going to get the infringement notice?  There is no clear 

smoke setting off the alarm.  Are you going to get the infringement notice?  There is no clear indication if you will receive an infringement.  I was recently asked how Queensland Fire and Emergency Services differentiate between charging infringements for unwanted alarm call outs which led to a lot of reading and several phone calls.

I was told by one of the Community Safety officers that if you haven’t had an unwanted alarm in the last 60 days then you won’t be charged, however, if you have had several after the initial one in the same period then you will receive an infringement for every unwanted alarm.  So be prepared to pay.

I also discovered that each state has a different approach on charging for unwanted alarms and this article is only an overview of the response provided to my client as part of my research for them in the state of Queensland.

QFES advise that they respond to around 18000 unwanted alarm activations from monitored fire alarm systems per year.


QFES define an unwanted alarm as “an emergency alarm signaled at a time when the Commissioner is satisfied there was no emergency requiring the attendance of the fire service”. [i]

When a new construction is looking at the Fire Detection system there is a method called a "Pragmatic cooking and shower Test"[ii] This test is applicable to any Class 2 or 3 building with an automatic Fire Detection system required to comply with AS1670.1

Unfortunately, this only applies to new buildings prior to the issuing of final approval to the satisfaction of QFES.

I have also attached a link to Unwanted Alarms Guidelines https://www.qfes.qld.gov.au/buildingsafety/unwanted/Documents/BFS-UAGuidelines.pdf

The Guidelines address some of the issues that are the main cause of the alarms going off, in particular:

Page 4 - Airflow management discusses the main cause of Unwanted alarms being cooking fumes and steam from showers – the products from activities in these rooms setting off the alarms.

Point 6 - the Human factor which then refers to compensating design features.

woman on a phone looking at paper

There is mention around an alarm Investigation facility where a modification to the existing smoke detection and alarm system which delays the transmission of the fire alarm to provide time for manual acknowledgement but again there is limitation on use and I would recommend that if you are looking at this as an option that you read through all the 

documentation provided and also consult with your Fire Maintenance provider, and before adopting any of this you need to consult with the Emergency Fire Services to see if it is appropriate for your building and the occupants of the building.

QFES do provide information on managing an unwanted Fire Alarm identifying the main causes and tips to prevent unwanted alarms. "Managing your Unwanted Fire Alarms" [iii]

​Main Causes:

  • ​​​​​​Burnt Toast​​
  • Cooking Fumes
  • Steam
  • Aerosols Sprays
  • Cigarettes/Candles
  • Workmen/Cleaners
  • Dirty Smoke Detectors
  • 'Break Glass' alarm damage

QFES suggests some tips to prevent unwanted alarms:

  • Check toaster setting prior to use
  • Stay and observe - Don't leave the toast
  • Spraying aerosol cans away from smoke detectors
  • Provide the tips in the kitchen for all holiday units/Boarding houses etc to inform of the automatic fire alarm
  • Discuss with workmen inf they are doing work around the detection systems what strategies they have to minimise the work dust or heat
  • Ensure all ventilation systems are working effectively in bathrooms and kitchens and draw the steam away from any smoke detectors

Replacing Options may not be a possibility due to new equipment costs, but it will be up to your Management or Body Corporate Committee to determine if the number of unwanted alarms over the lifetime of the Fire Detection system is worth the replacement.

people working together

Again, best practice is informing your residents on how to minimise the impact and if there is an identified “culprit” whether the charges are passed on to them directly.  Do your research and consult with your Fire detection maintenance team to discuss how you can improve your circumstances for unwanted alarms. 

Family Escape Plan – Practice to be Prepared

Picture this – it’s Wednesday night, 2am and everyone is sound asleep. The children, aged 2 and 5, are downstairs in their bedrooms and the family dog is in the kennel outside. Suddenly, out of nowhere, like a grand strike of lightening filling the night sky, the calm serenity of the night is fractured. You are abruptly jolted awake by the ear-piercing screech of the fire alarm. The smell of smoke begins to fill your nostrils and within a split second, your heart rate doubles. Your mind starts to race…why is there a fire? Where is this fire? Do the kids know what to do in a fire – but they are downstairs?! Anxiety defiantly grips every part of your body as you leap out of bed and realise the fire is coming from the kitchen – a mere 10m away from the children’s bedroom.

Approximately, seven people die every day as a result of fires in the home. But alarmingly, the U.S. Fire Administration reports that children below the age of 5 have a significantly higher risk of dying in a residential fire, with more than 40% of children killed or injured in a home fire being under the age of 5.

Do these statistics make your palms sweat and your heart race? Do you have a little one at home? Would they know what to do in the event of an emergency? Most fatal fires are preventable, so it is important to make the time to prepare now to protect yourself, your family, and your home.

Arguably, the most important plan you will ever make is your family’s fire escape plan. A fire escape plan is a personalised plan of action that outlines how people should escape a burning house and identifies evacuation routes in the event of a fire.

How to make a fire escape plan:

  • Gather all members of your family and together, make a plan (see resource list)
  • Walk through your home and inspect all possible exits and escape routes. Determine two ways out of each room, including walls and doors.
  • Mark the location of each smoke alarm and check that smoke alarms are working
  • Agree on a safe spot to meet outside the house
  • Determine the roles of each person in your family in the case of a fire
  • Teach children, in an age-appropriate manner, on how to escape on their own in case you can’t help them

Practice really is the key to being prepared for an emergency. Practice during the day, practice during the night, make your drill as realistic as possible. It is worth the time and effort to ensure that your family can quickly and safely evacuate your home.

Make Your Kids Fire Smart

As every parent and education worker knows children’s curiosity can lead them to some troubling situations. 

Statistical information gathered from the Parliamentary legal and Constitutional Affairs Fire Safety report advises that “it is difficult to locate information about fire related incidents in Australian States and territories, and even more challenging to find statistics that can be compared in a meaningful way.”  [i] 

person from australian fire pro teaching

The report also provides a limited overview of fire-related incidents as follows:

  • In New South Wales (NSW) from 2010 to 2015 there were 23,766 accidental fires. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14 the number of structure fires attended by Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) dropped from 7495 to 6209
  • Between 2002-03 and 2006-07, Queensland Fire and Rescue (QFR) attended more than 2400 structural fire incidents each year, with those incidents increasing by 9.7 per cent during that period.
  • In South Australia, between the 2007-2008 and 2013-2014 financial years, there was an average of 1175.6 structure fires per year.
  • The Tasmanian Fire Service (TFS) attended 631 structural fires in 2013-14.
  • During 2014 there were 3000 house fires recorded in Victoria.
  • From 2014-15 the Western Australia Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) attended 60.27 accidental residential fires per 100,000 households.
children playing with blocks

In the United States, "between the years 2005 to 2009, children playing with fire started an estimated 56,300 fires" [ii], from ignition such as candles, lighters and matches. Almost half of those fires were caused by children taking place in bedrooms after playing with those items. These statistics can be prevented with something as simple as teaching your kids fire safety and the dangers of hazardous items.

"Before kids are even born, they start to acknowledge voices and begin to gain an understanding, by 18 months children should e able to form their own sentences"[iii] which means they have the capability to know right from wrong, especially when it comes to hot and dangerous items.

To benefit yourself and your child in an emergency, it is recommended to ensure that you are teaching your child their name and where they live so when they reach 3 or 4 years old they can tell an appropriate person or emergency services.

Fire safety can be implemented when teaching your kids basic knowledge such as shapes, colours, words, noises etc. ensuring your child knows what a fire alarm is and the sound it makes is a great first step when teaching fire safety.   

Explaining the dangers of fire and what it has the potential to do to themselves, others and their surroundings while scary for some can save their lives along with their peers as well. Teaching one child fire safety can start a chain reaction of preventing other children to play with hazardous items that can lead to a fire.

While teaching children the dangers of fire safety has loads of benefits, they are still children and don’t have the comprehension skills like adults do.  There are lots of different activities available to help educate your little ones on the web and you can find some on our website as well under resources. 

plastic letters

To prevent fires from happening or starting never leave things such as candles, food cooking or children with these items unattended even for a short period of time. Childproofing ignition such as matches or lighters can help prevent fires from happening but the education of Fire safety for children is still the most beneficial.

Have lots of fun with activities and teach your children fire safety tips through learning.

Teaching your child, the dangers of fires and what to do in a fire is the best way to keep you and your family safe, also ensure that you have your own escape plan for your family to follow in case of emergency.  

Related post:  Planning for escape from the family house.

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