West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service introduced a policy in April last year of charging organisations £350 if crews are dispatched to the same premises more than three times in a year unnecessarily.
An invoice for the same amount is issued for every subsequent false alarm within the 12-month period.
According to a report prepared for the service’s community safety committee, the tactic was implemented “to drive down the number of false alarms and unwanted fire signals by encouraging those responsible for fire alarms to manage them in an appropriate manner”.
But Lyndsey Whitaker, of the Federation of Small Businesses in West Yorkshire, said small firms felt penalised. She said: “The thing that bothers us is that businesses feel like an easy target. They are a public service – a service that receives funding from council taxes and business rates – and when an alarm is triggered you expect to get a response.
“It’s like if someone attempts a break-in, or if someone calls and ambulance but then doesn’t require hospital treatment – they wouldn’t be charged by the police or the ambulance service.
“The concern is that they are making money out of this.”
Since it was introduced, 198 organisations have fallen foul of the policy, although 21 out of 23 appeals have been successful.
Fire protection officer Nigel Charlston said: “The money is just covering what it costs to attend these calls – it’s not a money-making exercise.”
He said the number of false alarms had fallen by nearly 10 per cent – equivalent to more than 400 call-outs – since the charging policy was introduced.
According to the community safety committee report, businesses which take action to stop false alarms also save themselves money because the average cost of evacuating staff is £2,900.
Based on that figure, the 10 per cent reduction in call-outs will have saved businesses in West Yorkshire a total of around £1.2m.
West Yorkshire Fire Service is intending to use some of the money it has collected from the false alarms policy to pay for a permanent staff member to oversee cost recovery and work with organisations to improve their alarm systems.
Mr Charlston said: “At the moment we are in a position where we are just reacting to false alarms when they happen. We want to be more proactive to help businesses prevent them in the first place.”