There are a lot of procedures that can be used, and the NFPA isn't totally clear on how to handle an alarm, except, get people out of the way of fire and smoke, and call the fire department. False alarms aren't supposed to happen, so false alarms aren't covered by the NFPA very well at all.
A lot of my recommendations are based on working on the fire alarms in a large hospital. The question isn't a simple "Should We Silence or Reset the Alarms", the real question is concerning "What Everyone Should be Doing When the Alarm Sounds".
Common Sense is a real important thing to use because common sense is what the NFPA code is really based on.
The following is based on common sense; when to silence the alarms is only a small part of the issue.
In a hospital setting, the idea of having written procedures in the emergency book can't be over-emphasized. If the procedures are written down in the hospital procedure book, and accessible to the hospital security, medical staff, and facility people, then everyone in the building will know what should be done when the alarm sounds.
Also, when there are changes in procedure, if the procedures are written down, everyone can see the changes.
This happened and shows why training is needed. One time, there was a huge alarm in an assistive living home for the elderly. They had a general fire alarm and a waterflow activation. The off-site monitoring company dispatched the fire department, but called on site to verify what was going on. The phone was answered by a janitor in the next building - who wasn't trained. Because he wasn't trained to first investigate the fire, he told the monitoring company that nothing was happening. call off the fire department.
The janitor had not been trained.
The fire department arrived anyway. It wasn't a fire this time, instead, it was a large fire sprinkler pipe that has frozen and broken in the attic. The fire department was needed to help evacuate all the elderly residents to other safe places to stay.
In other words, anyone on site investigating a fire has to be trained.
With training, everyone has to know what to do when the alarm sounds:
- Nurses have to know to get all patients behind closed fire doors
- Engineering should know who is going to stay at the fire alarm panel so it can be controlled, and who should go to the site to investigate
- Security should know who stays in the control area, who meets the fire department, who goes on site to investigate
More than just letting people and staff know what the fire alarm sounds like, fire drills are a training method to help teach everyone what they should be doing when the alarm sounds. It shows the people on the hospital floor what should be done (they practice doing what they should do with a real fire) and it shows the hospital management what needs to be changed in the procedures to allow people on the floor to do their job.
In the hospital I worked with, each time there was a fire drill, the management had about 10 people with clipboards, scattered around the building, checking that all the horns and strobes worked, checking that doors closed, and seeing where the procedures or the training needed improvements.
I have talked to a number of fire marshals and watched how a large number of facilities handle what to do when the alarm sounds. This procedure will have to be modified and incorporated into the hospital's emergency procedure manual.
When the Alarm Sounds
- DO NOT SILENCE OR RESET
- Read the Panel - See where the panel says there's a fire
- Call the fire department
- One person stay at the fire control panel, another person go on-site and investigate - both of these people have to be properly trained, or else the alarms will have to continue to sound
If the on-site investigator finds fire:
- DO NOT SILENCE OR RESET
- Call the fire department again
- The on-site investigator reports the fire and helps move anyone in immediate danger to get to a safe place
If the on-site investigator finds that there was no fire:
- After looking, the on-site investigator reports the all-clear to the security people and to the person at the fire panel
- SILENCE BUT DO NOT RESET - silence only if the fire marshal has said that the alarms can be silenced
- Find out the cause of the alarm, and fix the cause of the alarm
- RESET - reset only if the fire marshal has said that the panel can be reset
These procedures are not based on the probability of false alarms; these procedures are based on the possibility of real fires.
Yes, it does take several minutes to find out the cause of the alarms. But the alarms are there to tell everyone that there is real danger. Remember, if there is a real fire, and the alarms have been turned off, people will think that there was no real fire. Then once a real fire is found, these people will have lost precious minutes because they were not taking necessary action.
If there are problems in the hospital with false alarms, the false alarms have to be fixed, or having a fire alarm system is useless. Yes, many causes of false alarms can be fixed. Fix the false alarms, then if there's a real fire, everyone will react better.