A third of fire callouts in the past financial year were false alarms, costing businesses and the Fire Service millions of dollars.

Details released to the Herald under the Official Information Act showed fire crews attended 77,463 jobs between July 2016 and June 2017, 26,336 of which were unnecessary callouts, and included things like alarms set off by a child and burnt toast.

The number of unwanted callouts was the highest in the past five financial years – up more than 640 false alarms on 2015/2016.

In comparison, incidents listed as structure, vegetation and "other" fires, such as car fires, made up 18,040, or less than a quarter, of the jobs attended by fire crews in the past financial year.

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Fire and Emergency New Zealand's national adviser of fire risk management, Peter Gallagher, said false alarms were "frustrating" for fire crews.

"These are events that we want to reduce… because of the cost to businesses and the cost to our business of responding, and also the added risk it poses to members of the public who won't acknowledge a real fire alarm when one occurs."

Prior to urban and rural fire services joining forces to form Fire and Emergency NZ in July, businesses that had more than three false alarm callouts in 12 months were fined $1000 plus gst – a cost now funded by the fire service.

Fire and Emergency could not quantify how much false alarms cost businesses in the past year. However, figures previously released by the Fire Service showed it charged $23.9 million over the five year period ending in 2016, including $4.8 million in 2015.

A 2006 report estimated the annual cost of false alarms to the fire service was
$46.2 million.

Gallagher said while the loss of fines as a deterrent was a concern, Fire and Emergency NZ was focused on other ways of stamping out unwanted callouts. This included looking at fire alarm standards, which were due for a rewrite, and educating businesses about other costs of false alarms such as evacuating paying customers.

"The incentive shouldn't be that Fire and Emergency NZ will turn up and charge you [if there is a false alarm]…it should be that the incentive is: I want to make more profit for my business and it hurts my business every time the alarm goes off," said Gallagher.

He said Fire and Emergency NZ was also engaging with the fire alarm industry about the reliability of fire alarm systems, with factors such as a lack of maintenance or a system not being suitable to its environment, contributing to false alarms.

"Obviously we want the public to have confidence in alarm systems. We don't want them to be complacent that it's an unwanted alarm and therefore they don't need to evacuate the building. In order to maintain that public confidence we have to have reliable alarm systems.

"However, while we have issues around reliability that's a deterrent for building owners to actually invest in better and better alarm systems...They're not going to spend more money on another system unless they can have that confidence that it's going to only activate when it needs to."

According to Fire and Emergency NZ other common causes of false alarms were a lack of appropriate ventilation, faults, building contractors and malicious activity.

"[Malicious activity] is getting less and generally New Zealanders are a little bit more responsible around those sorts of things, but you may notice that in some buildings there are now additional covers put over manual [alarm] call points on the wall to eliminate people switching the switch on and running away," said Gallagher.

False alarms were most frequent in the Northland and Auckland region resulting in more than 9630 callouts – 37 per cent of fire jobs in the area - in the 2016/2017 financial year.

Other callouts the fire service attended in the past year included rescues, medical events, car accidents and hazardous materials incidents.