Sa, 2.12.2023

Firemen fed up with false alarms

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Ants Liigus

Enough, says Rescue Board: on 98 percent of occasions, yearly, automatic fire signalisations in Estonia trigger false alarms. Hundreds of working hours are wasted while investigations into reasons will often – surprise, surprise – lead to maintenance firms.

A female voice comes thru depot loudspeakers, yelling and address and abbreviation for «automatic». The rescuers slide down the metal poles and jump into vehicles – not too enthusiastically. One would understand: last year, serious fire hazard percentage with such calls was no higher than 1.9 percent. Mostly, the time and lots of fuel is spent for nothing. Every departure costing €81, a whopping €326,000 of taxpayer money was wasted. And to make the culprit pay, the law allows not. 

The objects in Estonia with alarm sent directly from sensors in the ceiling number 1,214. These include large shopping malls, giant industrial buildings and warehouses, medical institutions, and schoolhouses. Plus every office building in the land with over 500 of staff stuffed into it.

«And this is what makes signalisation so effective,» says Rescue Board fire safety expert Tamur Vaher. «The issue is how these are maintained and used.»

And here’s where the problems begin. Last year served up over 4,000 automatic false alarms. Of these, 333 equalled food left on the stove or popcorn burnt up. Lion’s share came from dormitories, social houses and common kitchens. 214 false alarms were thanks to laziness of technicians who didn’t care to switch the system on maintenance mode.

It’s interesting reading after that: careless smoking, pushing the alarm button accidentally, gypsum dust, cleaning work, water vapour entering the sensor, or the sensor being a decade old. The human errors could be reduced by awareness-campaigns. It’s the negligence that irritates the Rescue Board. «We have this bunch of alarms from objects with no human factor involved whatsoever,» says Mr Vaher.

The black maintenance market

The baddies are system maintenance guys who cheat house owners, to call the spade a spade. To explain, let’s start by shedding light on the system. The rules are: owners of houses equipped with fire alarm systems need to hire a maintenance firm which will check and test the entire system either in every quarter or once a year. Much is at stake and the work often operose. In the national library in Tallinn, for instance, the system involves 2,500 sensors.

Estonia has lots of companies offering maintenance. Often, they do the job on the side. As admitted by Estonian Security Association director-general Kaupo Kuusik, not much was needed up to now to set up shop. All it took was a professional certificate issued by the association itself. At that, the holder of said certificate did not have to be doer of the work, just the one to confirm it and bear responsibility. 

Thus, the association often encounters situations where owner of a company shows up to obtain the certificate, and «lends» his signature to other firms afterwards. It got especially bad during the downturn, as house owners begun to terminate service contracts and hire small firms created last night. Everybody wanted to save money... including the service provider.

«As these systems were not decently maintained for two years, 40 percent just have up the ghost. For the customer, replacing these components was very expensive,» said Mr Kuusik. It’s no coincidence that during these years the false alarms peaked.

The maintenance guys got their money while risks were low. «Money for nothing. The approach was that should there be a fire and the case goes to court, then let’s see. But by then the Father, Son and Three Screwdrivers Plc was bankrupted and another shell created.»

The downturn came and went, but the low-quality maintenance companies are still abundantly around. Mr Kuusik calculates that procurements at local governments, for instance, come with such low prices that genuine service is excluded. «The fuel should cost more that the entire servicing contract,» wonders Mr Kuusik.

The Big Sloppy

So since last year Rescue Board and security association have fixed their fiery gaze on maintenance men. Tamur Vaher tells us that on basis of false alarms a pattern has emerged, as well as the hardened sinners.

«During the initial five months of the year, we had 110 objects listed. With all of these we performed administrative proceedings – showed up or asked for maintenance diary logs,» relates Mr Vaher. The usual is: maintenance man spent two hours on an object where a day needed to be spent. Instead of the entire system, just a couple of sensors were checked, and the system then declared okay.

«One might think that the small firms make mistakes, but life proves otherwise: these are the major companies,» says Mr Vaher. They would not publish the black list at the moment. But they say at least five have received letters of warning.

Security association chief Kaupo Kuusik says that if the errors don’t go, professional certificates may be cancelled – with that, so goes the job. «We wrote them that we have the right and that we intent to use it if the situation doesn’t change,» underlines Mr Kuusik.

To those providing maintenance service, Mr Vaher has a couple of simple suggestions. Firstly: check that the work is performed by the very people who were presented as experts at procurement. Secondly: owner of the building should assume personal responsibility and check if the maintenance man tests the entire system. In case of doubts, better have recourse to Rescue Board.

To bring an example of people punished, last year but one a fine was twice imposed on an expert servicing kindergartens in Ida-Virumaa who did a sloppy job.

Also, the security association has undertaken to amend rules – instead of one, the professional certificate now comes with three levels, and the lowest-level guys are not allowed to service large systems.

Rescue Board head Kuno Tammearu has set himself an aim: in times to come, false alarms should cease to be cause No 1 for fire truck departures. This may take years, however, as over these past two years the amount is only down 20 percent.