False alarm calls leave bill of almost $300,000

By Jordan Bond

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FALSE ALARM: The fire service charges $1150 for callouts when there is no fire.
FALSE ALARM: The fire service charges $1150 for callouts when there is no fire.

Whanganui residents and businesses were billed almost $300,000 over the past five years for calling the fire service when there was no emergency.

Fire service figures show $292,000 was charged to building owners, businesses and individuals over the past five years for false alarm calls. Last year $66,700 was charged.

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

The service made 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 occuring, despite there being no fire - was also not charged.

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

"False alarms 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 are 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 - a quarter of all incidents and the most common category of call.

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.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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