Bay of Plenty residents and businesses were billed almost $700,000 over the past five years for calling the fire service when there was no emergency.

Fire service figures provided to the Bay of Plenty Times showed $686,550 was charged to building owners, businesses and individuals over the past five years for false alarm calls. Last year $131,100 was charged.

The fire service could charge $1150 when called out when "there was no genuine fire or other emergency requiring intervention" - but it was only charged after the third false alarm call in 12 months.

The service made it clear it would not discourage genuine calls for assistance. For these purposes, a "good intent" false alarm call - when a person had a well-founded belief a fire was occurring, despite there being no fire - was also not charged.

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Tauranga deputy chief fire officer Graeme Easton said businesses were only charged after their third false alarm.

"They get a warning for the second one, and only on the third alarm if it cannot be identified why there was another false alarm," he said.

He said the charges were to discourage false call outs, and to "encourage maintenance and keeping the fire alarm systems up to date".

Mr Easton said sometimes the fee was waived if businesses had spent the same amount on fixing and updating their fire alarm system.

He said fire risk officers worked with businesses to help reduce false alarms, and to provide support so owners could have a better understanding of fire safety.

National risk management advisor Todd O'Donoghue said false alarms were time consuming, resource-heavy and dangerous.

"False alarm calls have a huge effect on our resources," he said. "Also, every time we respond under lights and sirens for a false alarm, there are risks for our firefighters and the community when we're responding with urgency on the road."

Mr O'Donoghue said a false alarm call in smaller cities and towns where brigades were volunteer-run could pull people out of work for no reason.

"Once again, false alarms are putting a bigger cost on the community itself because a lot of employers are dropping staff numbers to go attend these callouts."

Mr O'Donoghue said the charges should not be considered fines, but were an incentive to reduce false calls. He said whenever a building owner found the cause of the false alarm and fixed it, the fire service often would not charge for earlier false callouts.

"It's not about us making money from false alarms. It's more an incentive to make them pay for any repairs and maintenance that they need doing to prevent false alarms."

Nationwide, the fire service attended 18,650 false alarms last year. It has charged $23.9 million over the past five years, including $4.8 million last year.

A 2006 report estimated the cost of false alarms to the fire service was $44.7 million a year.