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Author(s): Wayne Moore. Published on May 1, 2018.

In Compliance | NFPA 72

Rethinking our approach to malicious fire alarms


On Valentine’s Day, our lives were once again disrupted by the news of a school shooting, this one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The suspected shooter activated a manual fire alarm box and began firing at students and teachers as they initially evacuated. The fire alarm caused confusion because there had been a fire drill earlier in the day.

Several social issues connect with this shooting and, other than the terrible loss of lives, those of us in the fire alarm industry should especially take note of the actions of the shooter concerning the fire alarm system because this could happen again.

We have lived with false alarms since the advent of fire alarm systems. False signals have resulted in apathy among occupants, who often do not respond as they should. We cannot avoid a false alarm caused by someone maliciously actuating a manual fire alarm box, but we need to rethink the entire problem. We need to develop better solutions, as well as a better way to respond to an alarm. Quoting Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

We have successfully employed several devices and procedures to deter the malicious operation of a manual fire alarm box. For example, we can provide a cover for the manual station that, when lifted to gain access to the manual fire alarm box, sounds a local horn at the device location before someone can actuate the box.

Additionally, we can enforce the requirements of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®,, that allow the elimination of manual fire alarm boxes in new schools when all the following conditions apply: interior corridors are protected by smoke detectors in accordance with the code; auditoriums, cafeterias, and gymnasiums are protected by heat-detection devices or other approved detection devices; workshops and laboratories with dust or vapor are protected by heat-detection devices or other approved detection devices; and provision is made at a central point to manually activate the evacuation signal or to evacuate only affected areas.

Manual fire alarm boxes can also be eliminated in new schools when the building is protected throughout by an approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system in accordance with the code, and when provision is made at a central point to manually activate the evacuation signal or to evacuate only affected areas (

Automatic occupant notification must utilize an emergency voice/alarm communication system where the building has an occupant load of more than 100. For new schools, the code permits the use of the emergency voice/alarm communication system for other emergency signaling, such as mass notification, or for class changes. For existing schools, the code permits the use of the fire alarm system for other emergency signaling or for class changes, provided that the fire alarm has a distinctive signal, overrides all other use, and the authority having jurisdiction accepts this operation. Additionally, in both new and existing schools, the code permits the use of positive alarm sequence to allow for investigation prior to sounding a general alarm. All of these performance alternatives help with the manual fire alarm box issues where we intend to reduce or eliminate malicious false alarms.

Also, the Life Safety Code contains an expanded provision for mass notification systems in schools; specifies that a risk analysis in accordance with Section 9.14 shall be performed to determine if such a system is required.

A final option incorporates addressable fire alarm technology with the security cameras installed at schools. When a fire alarm device actuates, whether a manual fire alarm box or an automatic smoke or heat detector, the system turns on the camera closest to the actuation location. This allows school personnel to view the affected area, and possibly determine the intent of whoever pulled the alarm.

As one part of a coordinated approach to addressing the complex problems presented by this shooting, the fire alarm system stakeholders—fire protection engineers, authorities having jurisdiction, fire alarm system installers, school administrators—must work to address and reduce all false alarms. Together we can make a difference.

WAYNE D. MOORE is vice president at Jensen Hughes. Top Photograph: ThinkStock