Shocking cost of false fire alarm calls

FALSE fire alarms and hoax callers are costing Suffolk taxpayers about £300,000 a year - sparking calls for some repeat offenders to be billed for time wasting.

FALSE fire alarms and hoax callers are costing Suffolk taxpayers about £300,000 a year - sparking calls for some repeat offenders to be billed for time wasting.

Most of the money is going on false alarms from automated alarm systems, with hospitals, a prison and a brewery the leading offenders among more than 3,000 unwanted call-outs in 2005-6.

Suffolk Fire Service bosses are looking into ways to cut the number of false alarms, commonly set off by insects getting inside detector heads.

A spokeswoman for the fire service said the cost of call-outs varied according to the number of engines sent and the type of crew, and said the £300,000 yearly cost was a “ball park” estimate - up from about £270,000 in 2004-5.

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Hoax callers are also thought to cost the county about £20,000 a year, although the number of calls fell from 304 to 207.

Exact costs of sending out a single fire crew are not available from the fire service, although dispatching a retained crew costs about £100.

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Fire authority bosses said yesterday they would consider the idea of charging repeat offenders as they looked to tackle the problem.

Joanna Spicer, Suffolk County Council's cabinet member responsible for the fire service, said she had asked for details about how the service might charge for call-outs to be prepared.

But she added: “If they were any changes we would have to think very carefully about it and would approach it with great caution.

“For example, we would have to approach a hospital differently to a small business. But I must stress that there is no way we would stop responding to automatic alarms. Saving money should not be the main driver, the main driver is not wasting resources.”

John Goodwin, vice-chairman of the council's public protection scrutiny committee, said false alarms and hoax calls were a “big, big problem”.

He added: “We need to look at the financial aspects of this as it is dear to my heart and we've got to avoid wasting money. It is a hell of a lot of call-outs for nothing. This money could be spent elsewhere.”

He said institutions or businesses that repeatedly triggered unnecessary call-outs should carry the costs rather than the Suffolk taxpayers.

Mr Goodwin warned that fire crews may not be respond quickly enough to a real emergency if tied up on a false alarm.

The county's top false alarm offenders include Ipswich and West Suffolk hospitals, Highpoint Prison, near Haverhill, and Greene King's Westgate brewery in Bury St Edmunds.

A spokeswoman for Ipswich Hospital said: “We work very closely with the fire service to try and minimise these calls.

“The trouble is if ward staff are making a piece of toast as a snack for a patient and it burns the smoke alarms are very sensitive and will go off. It is an automatic trigger and when the fire alarm goes off they come straight away.”

She added the hospital's new buildings would have the latest technology to help reduce the problem.

Steve Moore, director of facilities at West Suffolk Hospital, said: “We make it clear to our staff that we would prefer to have a false alarm than jeopardise lives, and urge them to break the fire alarm glass if they feel safety would be compromised.

“We do have a fairly old fire alarm system, which we are in the process of updating this year and next. However, even with the new system we will expect to have false alarms in the future for the reasons I have outlined.”

The fire service has teamed up with Highpoint Prison to drive down the number of false alarms which has led to a new agreement being drawn up at the jail to check alarm signals before the fire service is called out.


Ipswich Hospital 128

Highpoint Prison, Stradishall 56

West Suffolk Hospital, Bury 54

Westgate Brewery, Bury 51

Unilever, Lowestoft 43

Rannochs, Haughley 41

St Edmunds Place, Bury 41

Edmunds Hill, Stradishall 36

Grampian Country Pork,

Little Wratting 35

Grampian Country Pork,

Elmswell 30

Center Parcs, Elveden 22

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