Monday, September 15, 2014

Somewhat alarming

Any police officer or firefighter knows that we go on a lot of burglar alarms and fire alarms, but that relatively few of those turn out to be actual burglaries or actual fires. Around the country in recent years, cities have worked to reduce the number of false alarms they respond to, and particularly what I call chronic false alarms: places that have many repeats, usually due to faulty equipment or faulty training. I've blogged about these efforts on many occasions in the past.

One of the reasons we have been interested in reducing unnecessary false alarms is to conserve resources, but another important reason (even more so, to me) is safety. Responding to alarms is dangerous. Driving Code 3 (lights and siren) exposes both the responders and the motoring public to heightened risk. A few times every week, I walk by the photos of three Lincoln police officers and at least two firefighters who were killed in traffic crashes during emergency driving. Nationwide, the risk of traffic fatalities is among the biggest threats to police officers and firefighters.

It isn't just the police officers and firefighters who are at heightened risk, either. There has been a lot of concern around the country in recent years about fatal traffic crashes in which emergency vehicles have collided with motorists. I can recall two fatal accidents of this type in Lincoln during my career, although there may we one or more that I'm not recollecting.

Last Wednesday, at Lincoln Fire & Rescue's weekly management staff meeting, our chief officers were discussing this. While this was underway, I used our GIS analytic software, FireView Dashboard, to run a query in our incident data for all calls that were originally dispatched as fire alarms, and the subset that actually turned out to be fires. In the preceding 365 days, we had responded to 1,327 fire alarms. Of those, 16 turned out to be actual fires. Of the actual fires, half were "cooking fires confined to container." Only one of the 16 fires caused any property loss whatsoever, $1,500 damage at a sorority house, when smoke activated a sprinkler head.

On the one hand, any one of those calls originally dispatched as a fire alarm could turn out to be the Real McCoy. On the other hand, we sent a lot of engines and trucks on Code 3 runs knowing that the chances were small:1.2% to be precise. It's a matter of weighing the risk. Is the risk we are trying to mitigate (an incident that has people or property in peril) greater than the risk we are creating by a fire engine and ladder truck running with lights and sirens to the other 98.8%?


Anonymous said...

Why not just take the sirens out of the fire trucks and police cruisers and go with the flow of traffic? The Police are already forbidden from getting involved in pursuits and if there's such a small percentage of real fires there's a small chance of something burning down. You can leave the lights on top for traffic control.

Anonymous said...

Let's do away with firefighters and hand out fire extinguishers. Mandating sprinklers and letting technology take the place of firefighters would save a lot of tax money over time. Let's face it they will be obsolete someday anyway due to technology. The amount of money they consume for the protection given is ridiculous. Make 'em all EMTs in cargo vans and save us some money please. Then get away from the Kelly Daze and staff it like every other 24/7 operation.

Anonymous said...

When are you going to address the "man down/nature unknown" call? The drunk transient sleeping, but we are sending multiple units code 3 - WAY more times than we do on fire alarms. This is a problem that occurs multiple times everyday, all for a transient who is sleeping off a bender of high-gravity ETOH.

Tom Casady said...


That's a bit of an overstatement, although the "person down, nature unknown" call is certainly another example of the same thing: sending units Code 3 to incidents that in the final analysis are non-emergent.

So far this year, we've gone on 950 false alarms (dispatch code of FIREA) and on 1157 calls with an EMD code of 32 (unknown problem). Of those 32s, we've transported a patient to the hospital 295 times, which I assume means that in about 25% of the cases, we decided the patient needed some kind of more detailed assessment.

Do you have a suggestion on how we might change the response protocol for 32s?

Anonymous said...

Remember the TV commercial from the 1970's, "help, I have fallen and can't get up"? Back then I thought it was funny but as I am approaching 70 it is not as humorous as it was back then. So far I haven't had to make a 911 call because of an embarassing fall but I can see how it could happen. Funny how what goes around comes around.

Gun Nut

Anonymous said...

I have a question for you.

I have seen the term ETOH used in relation to what I assume to be alcohol but am not sure. What exactly is ETOH.

I think the biggest problem with running Code 3 is not the emergency responders but the motoring public.

Once upon a time a motor vehicle was used primearly for transportation. Now days they a advertised in some comericals I have seen as mobile offices. We keep cramining them full of distractions and people keep forgetting that they are driving 3000 lbs of steel.

Why does a car need to have internet access, a sound system that I can hear 6 blocks away in my house with the windows closed (tell me how you are going to hear an emergency siren or train whistle over that!) or the latest rage cell phones and texting.

Receintly I was driving down the interstate and observed a car driving all over the road. The woman driver could not keep her car in the same lane. I thought she was probably texting and I was wrong. She was driving 75 MPH and had a book in her lap that she was attempting to read while she was driving.

As far as I am concerned if you kill someone while reading, texting, etc. it should be murder one.

Tom Casady said...


ETOH is an abbreviation for ethyl alcohol, the variety found in a can of Colt malt liquor or a bottle of single malt scotch.

Steve said...

Are we talking totally automated alarms here, or including alarms set off by human beings intentionally and 911 calls? If 98% of the "alarms" are false, I suggest we treat these alarms more like a report by the public of a tornado, in which case we require a confirmation by a trained spotter or law enforcement before we sound the sirens. I would guess there is contact information available for the addresses from which the alarms are located. Make a call first and get confirmation there is an actual fire.

Anonymous said...

What Steve said is how I remember the 'man down, nature unknown' calls used to be handled. The police would be dispatched code 1 (but what cop really goes code 1 speed in God's car) to check on the person. If he/she was drunk, it was a trip to detox. Then, I'm guessing, someone decided that was a lawsuit waiting to happen or detox stopped taking unconscious people, and the ambulance started being called and we have what we have now. I don't see any way around what we have now though.

ARRRRG!!!! said...

It's that time of year again.

Anonymous said...

Obvious death ? Well if they are obviously dead and "cold to the touch" what the hell is the point? And what more proof do we need ? Save the trouble a call Roper and Sons instead would be most appropriate ! CYA wasted use of resource....!

Anonymous said...

Fire alarm and fire suppression equipment is usually mandated by building code "protect one from themsleves" by government or AHJ. No one has a lot of choice in this mandate. It is also required or recognised by UL, NFPA & FMA etc basicly for the insurance industry to protect life, property and their calculated profits or Lo$$eS ! And or ones premium insurance rates. It makes a safer protected society only if those responding are doing so in an appropriate safe way of driving and are within a particular response zone and close to a hydrant etc. I think the response needs to be addressed. Remeber who writes the paycheck, A city is of "cit"izens...we deserve no less. I think we have lost the idea of "To serve and protect". What kind of service are we providing and who are we serving? It should be the Citizen and community.

Michelle said...

Addressing Steve's comment--your suggestion is what we call Enhanced Call Verification (ECV). In places where ECV is required, the monitoring center makes a phone call to the site and to another number as well. Typically, this is only performed for burglar alarm activations. The reasoning is that burglar alarm systems protect property. and fire alarm systems protect life. Many jurisdictions are hesitant to tackle false fire alarms because of this difference. However, there is a growing movement of jurisdictions adopting fire alarm ordinances. These fire alarm ordinances often reflect the higher cost of a fire service response with fines for false fire alarms starting at $750 or more compared to false burglar alarm fines which often start at $100.