IFSJ Exclusive: Is the UAE still suffering from alarm fatigue?

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Liam Hunt, Marketing Manager at STI, looks at the response to false fire alarms in UAE

The UAE had set its sights on bringing false fire alarm numbers down to zero by 2021, aiming to pull the country in line with its goal of being one of the safest countries in the world, however, as we head into 2023 is the country still suffering from alarm fatigue?

With one in three GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) residents who ignore false fire alarms coming from the UAE, experts have warned of a ‘cry wolf’ attitude towards fire alarms in the country.

Alarm fatigue occurs when a person becomes desensitised to an alarm due to repeated false alarms and as a result, fails to react appropriately in an emergency – having potentially fatal effects.

From Dubai to Abu Dhabi, frequent false alarms have unfortunately made residents complacent causing them to delay evacuation and put lives at risk.

A common cause of false fire alarms is the accidental activation of manual call points and pull stations, often placed in high traffic areas it is easy for sensitive units to be knocked or mistaken for other electrical buttons.

After an incident at the Dubai Mall, the Dubai Police reported: “Dubai Police would like to clarify that a person mistakenly set off the fire alarm at the Mall after he had broken the emergency button fixed on a wall inside the Mall.”

It is not uncommon for public buildings across the UAE to be evacuated because of false alarms: affecting routine, costing businesses valuable time and money, and reducing the confidence the general public have in fire alarms.

Frequent false alarms at the Duja Towers in Dubai meant that when an actual fire broke out in the building in February 2020, many tenants ignored the warning bells.

Describing the incident, one tenant said he didn’t immediately evacuate the building upon hearing the fire alarm: “I ignored it as usual. When it kept ringing, I went down the stairs to check with the security who confirmed there is a fire in the building.”

Whilst another tenant added: “I myself have come down the stairs at least twice in the past because of the false fire alarm. So, it is natural that people do not take it seriously.”

Just two months later, as flames ripped through the 190-metre Abbco Tower in Sharjah, residents ignored multiple alarms before finally scrambling for safety.

Suffering from alarm fatigue, one resident said: “We ignored it thinking it was just another false alarm. But when it rang a second time and then a third, we got intrigued and looked out of the window.

“The sight that greeted us looked straight out of a disaster movie. Huge flames licked one side of our building as thick plumes of black smoke billowed the darkening sky.”

And as recently as November 2022, in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, firefighters tackled a large blaze at 8 Boulevard Walk in Downtown Dubai as residents experienced alarm fatigue.

A housemaid who looks after families in the 35-floor building said: “My madam thought it was a false alarm at first as it goes off quite often.

“There are lots of children in the building but everyone got out.”

Alarm fatigue is addressed in Chapter 18 of the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice: “It is resident’s responsibility to take every fire alarm and fire sounders seriously. Though there are false alarms sometimes, it is resident’s responsibility to verify the fire alarm without neglecting and communicating with facility management.”

False fire alarms allow for a dangerous relaxed attitude towards evacuations, however, they can be prevented. As recommended in BS 5839-1:2017 manual call points can be fitted with a protective cover to prevent false fire alarms, and halt alarm fatigue.

The British Standard Institute recommends in section 20.2b, that: “All MCPs should be fitted with a protective cover, which is moved to gain access to the frangible element.

“It is now recommended that a protective cover is fitted to a Type A manual call point to help prevent false alarms.”

A British Standard with global reach, BS 5839-1, has been used on high profile construction projects across the Middle East, including Dubai – the Standard recognises that false alarms can seriously prejudice the safety of occupants by contributing to alarm fatigue.

The dangers of false alarms are too highlighted in Chapter 8 of the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice: “Fire Detection and Alarm Systems are many a times despised and ignored because of frequent experience of false alarms, which can be nuisance and waste of time when unwanted evacuations take place.”

Consequently, in Section 4.10. Manual Fire Alarm Initiating System (Manual Call Points), the Code of Practice advises protective covers: “Listed protective covers shall be permitted to be installed over single or double-action manually actuated alarm initiating devices.”

Safety Technology International manufacture a range of protective covers, from integral covers to outdoor, sounder, and UL listed models; there are variations to suit all applications. These covers are specifically designed to protect manual call points and pull stations from false fire alarms.

Manual Fire Alarm Initiating Systems

The design, installation and spacing of manual fire alarm initiating devices must be securely mounted onto a background of contrasting colour. The alarm-initiating devices can be single action or double action and listed protective covers shall be permitted to be installed over single-or double-action manually actuated alarm initiating devices.

Manual fire alarm boxes are only to be used for fire alarm initiating purposes and be installed so that they are conspicuous, unobstructed, and accessible. Unless installed in an environment that precludes the use of red paint or red plastic, manual fire alarm boxes shall be red in colour and should be located within 1.5 m of each exit doorway on each floor. The maximum travel distance to nearest Fire Alarm box should not exceed 61m, measured horizontally on the same floor and be mounted on both sides of grouped openings over 12.2 m in width, and within 1.5 m of each side of the grouped opening.

This article was originally published in the January edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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