A report from NFPA shows that fire departments in the U.S. responded to roughly 22.4 million calls in 2003.

A just-released report from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows that fire departments in the U.S. responded to roughly 22.4 million calls in 2003, among them 13.6 million for medical assistance and 2.2 million triggered by false alarms. About 1.6 million calls, or 7%, were for actual fires.

Total calls were up 5% from the previous year; medical calls were up 6%; false alarms were up by 3%; and calls for fires were down 6%.

Since 1983, medical calls and false alarm-calls have doubled in number. Medical aid calls now account for 61% of fire department calls, and false alarms account for 10%.

False alarms continue to tax the nation's fire service because fire departments cannot presume a call is a false alarm and must respond as they would to a fire. Why have false alarms become so common? One reason is that more home and commercial alarm systems are being installed.

The four categories for false alarms identified in the report and percentage of all false alarms are:

  • System malfunction (36%). System malfunctions can result from mechanical failure or from improper installation or maintenance.

  • Unintentional (35%). Unintentional calls can be caused by system testing without prior notification to affected parties, or from smoke or steam caused by cooking or other activities.

  • Malicious (14%).

  • Other calls, including bomb scares, etc. (15%).

Over the 1999-2003 period, the number of system malfunctions decreased 12%, from 901,500 to 795,500. Unintentional calls increased 28% in that same period, from 605,000 to 773,000.

What can be done to reduce the number of false alarms? Have alarm systems properly installed and maintained by qualified professionals to minimize the number of system malfunctions and unintentional calls. Household smoke alarms and smoke detectors located within 20 feet of a cooking appliance should either be equipped with an alarm silencing means or be of the photoelectric type, which is less likely to be activated by normal cooking activities. All types of household smoke detection devices must be located at least three feet from the door of a bathroom containing a tub or shower.