Crews in Yorkshire have been called out to more than 23,000 false fires prompted by automatic alarms at private businesses, hospitals and schools since April 2015, the new figures show.
The potential sum of firefighters’ time and resources would total nearly £8m if counted separately from their working day, the investigation can reveal. And, it’s emerged, these alarm call outs account for a third of all incidents in some parts of the region.
“The practical cost is in the loss of this lifesaving resource,” said David Williams, chairman of the Yorkshire Fire Brigade’s Union.
“We don’t want to be at a hospital looking for a fire alarm, when just around the corner someone is hanging out of their window because their house is on fire.
“That’s time you can’t get back. That’s when it’s critical.”
The Yorkshire Post investigation, based on a series of Freedom of Information requests to the region’s four fire services, found there were a total of 23,281 false call outs to automatic fire alarms since the start of last financial year. The highest number - nearly half the total sum - were in West Yorkshire where firefighters responded 11,064 times. The authority here is now issuing invoices to repeat offenders.
Each call out in North and West Yorkshire takes one fire engine and four firefighters out of service, with an estimated cost of between £323 and £355 an hour.
Critics argue that this isn’t money spent, as firefighters would be on duty regardless, but admit this is a huge waste of resource which could be better spent.
“The numbers are down 80 per cent on what they were 10 years ago - but they still count for a third of all incidents that we attend,” said Dave Walton, deputy chief fire officer for West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS).
“The fire and rescue resource across Yorkshire is finite - it’s no secret that all services are facing budgetary challenges at the moment.
“We won’t save millions by not going to false alarms - the cost to us is in terms of opportunity.
“It would give us more opportunity to engage with the public and to do what we are good at - which is to work to reduce fire costs in terms of death, injury and property.”
Fire authorities have been working to tackle the issue, but say the weight of responsibility has to lie with private businesses in ensuring their systems aren’t adding to the problem.
“We know from history, from experience, that often it is down to alarms being poorly maintained,” said Mr Walton.
“It’s the premises’ owner’s responsibility.
“If we don’t reduce the demand as much as we can, then our fire crews cannot respond to fires, car accidents, to incidents where they are most needed.
“It’s in everybody’s interests that these are managed well.”
In some areas forceful measures have been put in place in parts of Yorkshire to tackle the number of call outs to automatic fire alarms.
Since 2015, firefighters have been called out to false alarms more than 23,000 times, including thousands of times to hospitals and schools.
As the “unnecessary” cost to critical resource continues, fire services across Yorkshire have taken steps to clamp down on the number of attendances.
“We charge now, for the most persistent,” said David Williams, chair of the Yorkshire Fire Brigade’s Union. “We will send a huge bill. We’ve done everything we can to prevent this from happening.
“We’ve tried the carrot, now we’ve got no alternative but to use the stick. And it’s a hefty stick - to pay £350 because someone’s burnt a bit of toast.”
The estimated cost of call outs - including the use of a fire engine and firefighters’ time - is nearly £8m across Yorkshire and £4m in West Yorkshire alone.
But this, the fire service argues, is a “notional figure” as resources would be in place regardless.
“It isn’t a true cost of £4m - firefighters are already at work,” said Dave Walton, deputy chief fire officer at West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS). “If we didn’t go to automatic fire alarms, we wouldn’t be £4m better off, the fire engines and firefighters would still be here. But it is a problem.”
WYFRS issued invoices 942 times since April 2015. These aren’t fines, the authority stressed, these are an attempt to recoup costs.
“We’re not fining people, we don’t have the power to do that,” said Mr Walton. “Where people are persistent offenders, we can invoice them. Calls to automatic fire alarms account for approximately a third of all our call outs. It stops our staff going out to community safety initiatives, to training days.”
Since the force started charging repeated offenders two and a half years ago, he said, the number of call outs had fallen nine per cent.
There was evidence that it cost organisations £2,900 for each call out, he added, and the charges were beneficial to all in the long run.
“We will continue to work with those responsible for the affected properties to manage down the demand as we see this as being of benefit to both the wider community and those organisations who host the fire alarms.”
In North Yorkshire, as of April last year, the fire authority also changed the way it responded to calls. Attending each of the thousands of automatic alarms every year was a “huge waste of resources”, North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (NYFRS) said, adding that it was “costly and disruptive” to its fire crews.
Since that time, it has not attended alarms during daylight hours in premises where people do not sleep unless a fire has been confirmed.
It also warned that it might not attend specific premises where there were repeated false alarms and where the cause was not being addressed.
Nicky Brown, chair of the South Yorkshire Fire Brigade’s Union, said steps were being also being taken here to tackle the issue.
“South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (SYFRS) have been cutting down the number of calls - and they’ve been reducing their attendance.
“They’ve been putting more onus on the premises’ managers to ensure it’s an actual incident before attending so that we don’t send appliances out unnecessarily. It’s a waste of resources.
“But if a fire alarm is going off, we have to send a firefighter out because there’s no way of knowing. The one time you don’t go, there could be drastic consequences.” ‘