False alarm activity in the U.S.

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"False Alarm Activity in the U.S. 2012" report (PDF, 611 KB)

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Report: NFPA's "False Alarm Activity in the U.S. 2012"
Author: Michael J. Karter, Jr.
Issued: December 2013

An in-depth report on false alarm activity and includes a table on fire department calls by type of call.


In 2012, U.S. fire departments responded to 2,238,000 false alarms. This was an decrease of 6.1%. This means that one out of twelve calls responded to by fire departments were false alarms.

False alarms were a big story in the 1970s, when the concern tended to be malicious activation of call boxes, typically by juveniles in large urban areas. A number of initiatives were taken in many cities, ranging from public education messages to stakeouts to greater use of voice-communication boxes to 911 phone message systems to box removal, and the problem seemed to retreat.

When false alarms began climbing again in 1982 (see Figure 1), fire protection experts expressed the view that the problem had changed, that malicious activation of boxes by juveniles were less of a problem than nuisance activation’s of automatic detection systems. Table 1 shows this view is surely correct when there were almost 3 system malfunctions for every malicious false call.

Overall, the 2012 false alarm figure decreased 6.1% from the year before. Let’s examine changes within categories of false alarms. System malfunctions decreased 4.7% from a year ago, accounting for 713,000 or 31.9% of all false alarms. Malicious false calls decreased 8.2% from a year ago, accounting for 167,500 or 8.2% of all false calls. Unintentional false calls (e.g., tripping an interior device accidentally and includes carbon monoxide detectors) accounted for 1,044,500 or 46.6% of all false alarms. Other false calls including bomb scares accounted for 313,500 or 14.0% of all false calls.

Over the 1988-2012 period, the number of system malfunctions increased every year from 1988 to 1999 and increased an overall 63.7% from 550,500 in 1988 to 901,500 in 1999, changed little in 2000, and then decreased 20.9% to 713,000 by the end of 2012 (Table 2). Malicious false calls after hovering around the 450,000 level from 1990 to 1992 decreased 40% from 1993 to 274,000 in 2001, increased 13% in 2002, then decreased quite steadily for an overall decrease of 46.1% to 167,500 in 2012. Unintentional false calls increased every year except for 1990, 1997, 2002, 2009, and 2012 for an overall increase of 276% from 278,000 in 1988 to 1,044,500 in 2012. A portion of the increase was due to the increase in the use of carbon monoxide detectors.