False fire alarm penalty weighed 11% of calls are system malfunctions

July 14, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

Carroll County firefighters may spend less time next year answering false fire alarms.

The county commissioners have declared themselves receptive to following Westminster city government's lead by establishing penalties for businesses that fail to fix faulty alarms.

During the past week, the commissioners said that if county firefighters endorse it, they will consider legislation aimed at automatic alarm systems that repeatedly sound when there's no fire.

The commissioners also have promised to give some attention to their own back yard. The county-owned building at 10 Distillery Drive was one of the top four sources of false alarms that called out Westminster volunteer firefighters in the 15 months from January 1992 through March of this year.

Repeated alarm malfunctions are not particularly high for any individual business. But, added up, they represent 11 percent of the local company's 850 fire calls between March 1992 and March 1993.

The Random House book distribution center on Route 27 had the largest number of false alarms in the Westminster Fire Company's coverage area in the 15-month period from January 1992 through March, a total of 16.

Carroll County General Hospital had 11 malfunctioning alarm calls.

Cranberry Mall had seven; the county government building on Distillery Drive, six.

"When we run close to 1,000 calls a year, we don't need this type of nuisance calls," said Robert P. Cumberland Jr., Westminster fire company vice president.

If the Westminster fire company is to continue to rely primarily on volunteer firefighters, it has to cut costs and unnecessary runs, Mr. Cumberland said.

The company hasn't tried to calculate the cost of a call, but Mr. Cumberland said it's not just dollars. He's concerned about use of volunteers' time, accident potential as firefighters rush to the station in their cars and as engines speed to the site, and the possibility that firefighters will be responding to a malfunctioning alarm when a real fire starts.

The Baltimore City Fire Department estimates per-call costs at $100 per vehicle, but Baltimore Battalion Chief Hector Torres said that figure is probably low. Lt. Richard DeFlavis of the Baltimore County Fire Department's investigative services division estimates the cost at $400 a call, based on four engines, a truck and a battalion chief, plus firefighters' salaries.

The Westminster company routinely sends one engine and the ladder truck to an automatic alarm call, plus one engine from another nearby company. Four firefighters are required per engine.

Westminster's new ordinance, enacted in May, makes a business or service liable for fines if it has more than three malfunctioning alarms in a 30-day period or more than five in a year. Fines are $100 for the first false alarm, $200 for each additional. The idea is to provide an incentive to have the alarm fixed, not to make money on fines, Mr. Cumberland said.

Explanations for the alarm malfunctions vary, from a sensor that tripped the alarm when it detected water pressure variations at Random House, to power surges and dust at Carroll County General, to dust on heating coils that set off the smoke detectors at the Cranberry Mall Cinema.

William E. Gavin, director of administration at Random House, said he did not believe that engines came to the distribution center on all 16 malfunctioning alarm calls.

Mr. Cumberland agreed that on some calls, Random House may have notified county emergency dispatchers to cancel. But the volunteers still have to head for the station, and sometimes Westminster will take an engine out anyway.

"Not that we don't believe the people, but it's our responsibility to make sure," he said.

Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Elmer Lippy expressed surprise that a county building was a source of repeated alarm malfunctions.

"My first inclination would be to inspect our equipment," Mr. Dell said. He said he could understand the fire company's complaints about alarm system malfunctions.

"It's a real aggravation to assemble these guys, and they come running off their job and it's a false alarm."

Tom Bowers, county building services director, said most of the calls to Distillery Drive were caused by mechanical failures in smoke detectors, which county workers replaced. "It's like everything else, it gets old and worn out," he said.

Commissioners Dell and Lippy said they don't plan to draft legislation until they hear an opinion from the Carroll County Volunteer Fireman's Association.

That probably won't be before September, said association President William Gabeler. He said association delegates will probably want to seek advice from their companies after discussing the possible legislation at an August meeting.

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