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Additional comments on fire department monitoring
August 24, 2022
Additional comments on fire department monitoring from article on August 6, 2022
          Here are some thoughts from the perspective of a NICET-IV with 40 years of security and fire industry experience and a volunteer firefighter/EMT in a town of 50,000 people in Monmouth County New Jersey.  
          In my security consulting practice, computer aided dispatching (CAD) software and Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) are frequent topics of engagement.  There are always a lot of stakeholders and competing viewpoints which make these projects particularly interesting. 
          I became active in the volunteer fire service when I joined Melville Fire Department in 1989.  Automatic Fire alarms were becoming a significant part of the 1,000 calls we answered each year.  Commercial fire alarms and sprinkler systems were the Wild West back then.  Despite years of pitching First Alert smoke alarms on TV, Dick Van Dyke was more successful building brand awareness than actually inspiring people to install them.  There were few inspections and a handful of standards which were enforced inconsistently, if at all.  As a larger fire district in an affluent area, we had a big budget.  We enjoyed our own 24x7 dispatcher.  Rare for any department, particularly on Long Island.
          Today, my fire company in Howell Township, New Jersey responds to 500 calls annually.  A smaller, more rural department with about the same geographical footprint as Melville.  Calls are still dominated by fire alarms, but now include hardwired and battery operated smoke alarms reaching the end of life.  These events are called in by residents or neighbors when they hear the device’s trouble “chirps.”  Van Dyke would be proud.  People finally install smoke alarms.  Why?  Because they are required by code.  Along with the other four districts in our township, calls are dispatched by the town police.  No fire alarm systems are directly monitored here.
          According to the NFPA, 70% of fire departments nationwide are 100% volunteer.  Upon receipt of an alarm, members are typically contacted via pager over a radio system.  Increasingly, departments are adopting apps that allow faster notification with superior cellular coverage and the ability for responding personnel to sign in to service so dispatchers and other members are able to better gauge who is responding to an alarm. 
          Once alerted, members respond to their station don protective gear and respond in the appropriate apparatus.  Chiefs or other officers generally respond directly to the scene in an emergency vehicle.  NFPA has guidelines for fire response timeframes:
NFPA 1221: One-minute for dispatch
NFPA 1710: One-minute for turnout (get into truck with all Personal Protective Equipment)
NFPA 1710: Four-minutes for drive time to the scene
          There’s a reason NFPA calls them guidelines.  In the time since I started writing this, my fire company was activated for a call for a fire alarm in a residence.  Since I’m awake, caffeinated, dressed, seconds away from my car and had the benefit of a “pre-alert” on my iPhone, I start my three minute and 30 second journey to the station immediatey.  Since it’s early on a Sunday and because I made the traffic light, I’ll shave 30 seconds off and arrive in three minutes flat.  50% of NFPA’s recommended six-minute response have already elapsed and I’m the only at the station.  No problem, three other members are close and a chief is on the way to the scene.  
          Fire engine started, gear on, driving directions to the call confirmed and we’re off.  It’s now minute eight.  GPS says it’s a five-minute ride to the call.  A chief just arrived and advised that the call was the result of a “culinary mishap” and our single engine would handle the call.  A quick ventilation with a large exhaust fan and the call is cleared within 45 minutes.  We arrived four minutes following the chief - 12-minutes total response time.  A failure in NFPA terms, but in rural America, pretty respectable.
          The CAD printout we receive shows that 911 received the call three-minutes prior to dispatching our company.  The central station indicated “residential fire alarm” with no indication where the alarm was coming from.  
          Best Practice 1:  Always clearly define zones.  A single smoke detector or pull station is very different from multiple zones in alarm.  
          Best Practice 2:  Always call the fire department first - don’t waste three or more minutes trying to verify fire alarms - commercial or residential.  Use a central station with enough personnel to simultaneously call the premises, ascertain cause and prompt residents to evacuate and await the fire department.  A call back saying there is a smell of smoke or visible fire allows responders to quickly request additional resources.  That improves protection of life and property.  A call back that advises an authenticated resident had some trouble with a pot roast, with no fire allows us to stop additional units and slow our response, protecting first responders and other motorists. 
          Best Practice 3:  In larger properties don’t use descriptors like “office one smoke detector.”  Responders have no idea where that is.  Even a school pinpointing an alarm in room 204 doesn’t mean much other than the alarm likely originated on the second floor.  Ask the responding department’s preference on directionals when setting up new accounts.
          Likely they have adopted ALPHA, BRAVO, CHARLIE and DELTA in favor of NORTH, SOUTH, EAST and WEST.  Alpha is the front of the building, then moving clockwise around the building Bravo is the left side, Charlie the rear and Delta the right.  Much easier.  A better example of room 204 would be Classroom 204 on the Second Floor, BRAVO CHARLIE corner.  Extra credit -  alert responders that the FDC (fire sprinkler hookup) is on the BRAVO side.  If you do, they know where to place the first apparatus and how to respond within the building.
          Best Practice 4:  Automated Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP) to PSAP is an evolving technology.  Monitoring centers can relay alarm information immediately, with little or no voice communication between PSAP telecommunicator and monitoring center agent.  While it’s not ideal for every emergency, it’s a perfect fit for fire alarms.  If your customer’s premises are in a part of the US with PSAP’s that accept the protocol, use it.  If your monitoring center can’t or won’t, it’s time to find one that does.
          Best Practice 5:  To the extent the AHJ approves, use communication methods that are direct and data rich.  That means network protocol backed up by radio, both with supervised connections that send and receive more than just general alarm or trouble conditions.  If you’re still selling probabilistic, time-killing dial up, in the year 2022 you might want to consider going into the buggy whip business - it has a vastly brighter future.
          Best Practice 6:  Make certain zone types are correct.  Don’t mix up CO (carbon monoxide), CO2 (carbon dioxide) with fire zones.  Programming errors happen.  Test every device.  I’ve personally responded to an empty office building on a Saturday morning for a fire alarm only to find a lethal level of CO.  Mislabeled zones can cause serious injury or death.
          Best Practice 7:  Many departments respond to CO calls without lights or sirens unless someone reports symptoms.  Customers often tell dispatchers they are fine and attempt to cancel fire.  Don’t allow this, ever.  CO is odorless and low levels can produce few, if any symptoms.  Dispatch fire first on CO, follow up with a call to the premises, simultaneously if possible.  Whether or not symptoms are denied, insist all occupants evacuate and await fire department arrival.  If symptoms are reported, immediately update the dispatch.
          Seconds and minutes quickly add up, especially when real world delays enter the mix.  If you want to stand out as a provider of wholesale monitoring, coach your dealers to include these (and a laundry list of other) best practices. As an installer, select a monitoring provider that doesn’t cut corners.
          What about 911 dispatchers, or as they are now known, telecommuicators?  In this series of discussions, the debate has been monitoring center vs. fire dispatcher.  In Melville, circa 1989, there was a board behind which included 40 Ademco Modularm direct wire galvanometers.  A fire alarm in a school, library or large office building resulted in a loud bell.  This was the sole method of communication and trouble or supervisory conditions would not report - but in some cases would generate alarm conditions.  Fast, but not great and because of these systems required leased telephone circuits, expensive.
          NFPA 72 (2022) Chapter 26 and the corresponding Annex includes many of the best practices outlined here.  It is the comprehensive list of what is required when monitoring fire alarms.  It’s common sense to transmit fire alarms to the individual who dispatches responders without delay.  But what if that individual is in a radio room in a building with no generator?  What if there is no redundancy in communication circuits?  What if they fall asleep, or have a medical emergency?
          Simple answer.  In order to be recognized as a PSAP, the building needs to conform to NFPA 1225 and telecommunicators working there need to conform to NFPA 1061.  That is, the PSAP needs to meet nearly identical standards as UL 827 for central station alarms.   Melville - nope.  A local Township Police station - perhaps.  A county PSAP call center - for sure.
          If you sift through all the codes and standards, there isn’t much room for debate until you try to apply them to a state, county, township, village or hamlet where different years of codes are adopted and AHJ’s may choose to take all, some or none of these variables into consideration when accepting new, or inspecting existing fire alarm systems.
          Decisions to consolidate local 911 centers into larger PSAPS are almost always politically influenced and revolve around dozens of external interests and factors.  Often it’s the lobbying of fortune 10 companies over the protection of life and property.
          As an industry, we must:
1.  Eliminate preventable obstacles and help responders arrive as quickly as possible.
2.  Ensure responders have accurate, complete information.
3.  Inform occupants what is going on during an alarm and what actions to take.
4.  Demand redundant, reliable, standards-based procedures.  Put protection of life and property above all else.
          The first hour of consultation is free.  I’m always happy to discuss this topic and how you can institute best practices to make your business shine.  
          Interested in volunteering in the fire service?  Reach out.  I’ll answer any questions and help you get started, wherever you’re located. 
Peter Goldring
          Peter Goldring is listed in The Alarm Exchange under the category of Technology and Services that increase or preserve your RMR.
More comment
          I haven't posted in quite some time, but this FD allowing a direct connect bothered me.  Being security professionals we all know that in a fire, seconds count.  But here is the rub:  Police departments got rid of the old Modularm systems over 30 years ago.  Yes it was nice way back when, a homeowner could lease a telephone line from their home to the PD for about $8.00 per month.  But It wasn't the cost that made the police departments demand the Modularm boards be removed, it was the LIABILITY. 
          The following is a true story.  A police officer that I knew in another town and had desk duty.  This goes back in the days before dispatchers.  A local resident had been having trouble with his security system and had several false alarms  in recent weeks.  This officer was literally less than one month away from being promoted to sergeant.  The resident's alarm sounded on the Modularm Board, and all the cop did was press the reset button.  It came in several more times, and rather than dispatch a police officer to check out the home, the cop wedged a paper clip across the reset button to keep the Modularm from sounding again.  About two hours later, the officer was typing a letter to the homeowner (yes, this incident even pre-dates PC's.) telling him in no uncertain terms to get his security system fixed.  Just as he was finishing the letter, the homeowner walked into police HQ and was obviously upset.  The officer started to tell the resident about his annoying alarm system when the customer interrupted.  His home had in fact been burglarized and there was over $30,000.00 missing in cash, jewelry and other items.  This was a huge black eye for that PD and the officer promptly saw his sergeant chevrons fly out the window.  It was very shortly thereafter, the town enacted an alarm ordinance to fine people who did not maintain their security systems, AND the ordinance stated that the PD would no longer accept signals from telephone tape dialers and the Modularm Board had to go also.  So getting back to this FD.  I see all risk and liability on their part, with nothing to gain.  Every commercial fire system has to send at least one test every 24 hours.  Headaches, headaches and heartaches. 
  As always,
John from New Jersey

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