Council hopes to throw water on false alarms

Hundreds of false alarms chased down by the Chilliwack Fire Department personnel have wasted valuable resources over the years.

Hundreds of false alarms chased down by the Chilliwack Fire Department personnel have wasted valuable resources over the years.

That was part of a sweeping staff report received at city hall Tuesday, followed by the introduction of new bylaws by council to tackle the problem, including fines for prolific offenders.

The biggest sore spot for fire officials is the all-too-common burnt toast scenario that the proposed new rules will seek to address.

A whopping total of 717 fire calls to single family homes came from monitored home security systems in the past four years. In 99 per cent of those cases or 708 of them, the owners were at home at the time of the fire call.

“It’s the most important aspect of this bylaw,” explained assistant fire chief Ian Josephson. “Say someone at home burns their toast. The smoke detector goes off because it’s wired into the security system. The monitoring company then calls us first.

“We’re almost out the door before the call gets cleared, so it ends up being a wasted call.”

False alarms were acknowledged as a growing concern for the department by Fire Chief Rick Ryall back in 2007, and the consensus was it was going to require new legislation to be drafted, he said.

They’ve been doing their due diligence and building the business case for the changes ever since.

“The biggest issue for us was the risk of getting caught out at a nuisance call when a real fire call comes through,” said Josephson. “We could be faced with a delayed response because we’re not downtown where we should have been.”

The monitoring companies had to step up and take responsibility, to allow the fire department to use its resources more effectively, he said.

“We’re saying they should be the ones to contact the home owner first. If they find out within 90 seconds that the home owners burned the toast, they can clear the call,” said Josephson.

“But they couldn’t do that without obtaining some sort of legal authorization through a bylaw.”

Other communities like Maple Ridge and Burnaby drafted bylaws to address the situation in a similar fashion.

The number of false alarms increased from 17 per cent of all calls in 2003, up to 31 per cent in 2010, and now represents the “single largest response type” for local fire officials.

Chilliwack RCMP handle about 2,000 calls a year from security alarms, using valuable resources and time to respond to the nuisance false alarms, according to the report.

“There is a direct cost to both emergency services in responding to these alarms with little or no benefit to public safety,” part of the staff report reads.

Fire alarm systems account for 68 per cent of all fire alarm responses by the fire department (22 per cent from multi-family buildings and 46 per cent from non-residential buildings).

Cooking mishaps and keypad errors topped the list of reasons for tripping alarms, followed by steam, smoking, dust and alarm testing. These accidental causes constitute 85 per cent of false alarms in security systems with smoke alarms, with the remaining 15 per cent due primarily to mechanical/electrical errors.

The new bylaw has provisions to fine property owners or levy fees when false alarms occur repeatedly. But they won’t be fining anyone willy-nilly, though.

“We’re going to be monitoring the calls and if we see numerous false alarms, we will try first to educate the owners to bring them into compliance.”

Only if they’re still unwilling to comply will they resort to levy fines or fees. But at least they’ll have gained the enforcement tools they needed to take action, he said.

Council gave introduction and three readings of the new bylaws. Final adoption by council is scheduled for the April 19 meeting.

“We’ll be pretty happy when this is finally passed,” said the fire official. “We hope it’s effective.”