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Written Statement - The Impact of False Alarms in Wales

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The responsibility for fire and rescue services is devolved in Wales.
Leighton Andrews, Minister for Public Services

Today I have published a report produced by my Assistant Fire and Rescue Adviser which explores the impact of false alarms in Wales.  

In 2013-14 the Fire and Rescue Service in Wales attended over 15,000 false alarms. This amounts to 40% of all the calls attended.

Over the previous decade there has been a marked reduction in the overall number of incidents that the Fire and Rescue Services attend, and I commend the specific contribution Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs) have made in achieving this through their prevention activity.  However, whilst the number of all incidents attended has reduced by 28%, the number of false alarm calls attended has only reduced by 13%.  

Responding to false alarms costs the Fire and Rescue Services in Wales in the region of £3 million each year.  Then there are the opportunity costs of attending non-incidents.  Firefighters’ time could and should be used more productively.  

False alarms also cause disruption in the premises where they occur. They are particularly common in residential care settings, where they may cause annoyance and distress to vulnerable people.  False alarms in commercial premises mean staff have to interrupt their work, customers also have to leave, and may not return. This loss of productivity and custom caused by false alarms in commercial premises costs around £28 million per year in Wales.    

The report identifies automatic fire alarm systems as being the main cause of false alarms.  This happens when such systems are either badly maintained, or installed in a way which means they are activated by dust, steam, cooking fumes or other non-fire phenomena. As such, they are completely avoidable.   Hospitals and care premises, universities and other education establishments, and retail premises are among those experiencing the highest levels of false alarms.

My Statement in January regarding Fire and Rescue Service Efficiency referred to the importance of deploying resources as efficiently and effectively as possible.  This is more   important now than ever given the strain on public sector resources as a result of UK Government austerity measures.

More can and should be done to tackle this problem.  FRAs clearly need to manage their resources according to local needs and risks.  Some of those risks – for instance in care homes – are so great that any alarm will always require a response.  Elsewhere, though, there is clear evidence that more robust approaches to automatic alarm calls can save significant resources without imperilling safety in any way.  The report sets out several such approaches, and I expect FRAs to consider them carefully and adopt those which appear most viable.  I am pleased that North Wales FRA has already implemented a new risk based approach to responding to automatic fire alarms. This has saved them £20k in cashable and non-cashable savings since its implementation in April.  

However there are issues for the wider public sector. Health and education establishments in particular should ensure they are not placing an unnecessary burden on Fire and Rescue Services, as a result of old or faulty alarm systems.  I will be discussing with my Cabinet colleagues how we as a Government can help to make that happen, and will make a further statement as appropriate.