Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service and ASDA Trial

Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service and ASDA Trial

Client: ASDA and the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service
Type of works: supply and testing of the new AlarmCall system from CST.

Paging specialist, Call Systems Technology, is at the heart of a pioneering scheme to reduce false fire alarms in the UK's supermarkets and other public buildings.

False alarms, whether accidental, through electrical failure or malicious, cost Britain's fire service millions of pounds a year. For a large public building with lots of people inside – such as a supermarket – usually a minimum of three fire engines respond, and the average cost of a 'scramble' is £1,000. And fire engines which are busy racing to a false alarm are unavailable should a real emergency happen, putting lives at risk.

Now a partnership between Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service and supermarket chain ASDA has shown a way to radically reduce the number of these false call-outs. And the new AlarmCall system is based around some clever pager technology supplied by communications specialist CST (Call Systems Technology).

The partnership was officially signed by John Judd, Assistant County Fire Officer, Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service, and Tony Morris, Director of Store Services, ASDA, on Wednesday 23rd March in a ceremony at ASDA's Eastlands store in Manchester. Appropriately enough, the store is only a matter of yards from Manchester's new landmark sculpture, B of the Bang.

While false alarms are an extremely serious matter for the fire service, they are a big frustration for large retail businesses, which must treat every alarm as a true emergency and evacuate customers. And when it's a false alarm there's the added cost of lost business, customers inconvenienced, and local traffic delays.

The new AlarmCall system is the brainchild of Alan Beecham, a Senior Officer with the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and the Service's Fire Alarm Coordinator. Alan wanted to find a way that large stores such as ASDA could be certain that, when the alarm was sounded, it was a true emergency and not a false alarm.

The solution has come in groundbreaking use of communications technology combined with common sense. ASDA set up a six-week trial in 10 stores in Greater Manchester, with two-person trained Fire Investigation Teams (FITs) ready to race to the location of a ringing alarm as soon as it happens. CST's role was to develop special pager systems that tell the FITs precisely where the ringing alarm is.

The ASDA fire investigation team has just three minutes to reach the scene of the alarm and check whether it is a true emergency, and the CST pagers instantly tells them exactly which fire alarm or sensor was originally triggered. One of the team races to the warning alarm while the other stands by at the alarm's main control panel.

If the ASDA fire investigation team member reaches the sounding alarm and recognises it as a false alarm or fault, that person instantly contacts the other half of the team, who can stand down the alarm, cancelling the call to the fire service.

But the system still safeguards public safety through the automatic triggering of a full-scale alert to the fire service if the sounding alarm lasts for more than three minutes.

The system is already showing its worth. This year, during the trial, there have been only two false alarms triggered by the ten ASDA stores involved – and one of them was inadvertently caused by a maintenance engineer. That's a 90% reduction compared to the same six week period last year.

Peter Hutchinson, Managing Director of Call Systems Technology, says the trial has been a huge success. "We have worked in lots of partnerships developing communications packages for specific situations, but this is a huge step forward," he says. "CST are not only delivering a service to a client, but helping to beat the problem of false fire alarms. This is a nationwide problem that costs hundreds of thousands of pounds – if not millions – every year."

He adds: "As long as the fire alarms fitted in public buildings are able to interface with our communication system and identify which alarm or device was originally triggered, this technology can work in any public place. This is a public service safety breakthrough we are proud to be involved with."

ASDA say the scheme has a huge benefit for its stores. Carole Stewart, Environmental Health Manager, ASDA, said fire alarms going off in ASDA stores reflected the national statistic that 97% of all automatically triggered alarms are errors, caused by anything from an electrical fault to high heat in the bakery department. She adds "The main concern for ASDA is that false alarms are both upsetting and annoying for customers, since they are rushed out of the store unnecessarily."

ASDA are planning to evaluate the success of the Manchester scheme in the next few months with a view to rolling it out nationwide.

Meanwhile, Alan Beecham describes the trial's results as fantastic: "The beauty of this system is that it adds to public safety because it delivers and instant response to a fire alarm. We aim for arrival to an alarm within ten minutes, but with this system there is a trained fire team investigating instantly.

"There has been a 90% reduction in false alarms during the trial period compared to the same period last year."

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