Williamsburg, Va., officials target false fire alarms

Mar. 28--WILLIAMSBURG -- If you live or own a business in Williamsburg, checking that your fire alarm system is working properly could do more than save a life.

It could save you money.

Williamsburg fire officials have begun enforcing a 10-year-old ordinance that allows them to issue fines for repeated false alarms to reduce the burden on firefighters' time and resources, Williamsburg Fire Marshal James Humphrey said.

The city's fire-prevention code provides that after three false alarms at one location within 90 days, a $100 penalty can be assessed for each subsequent false alarm. No more than $250 can be charged in a single day for repeated false alarms at the same location.

The false-alarm policy has been a part of the city code since February 1998, City Attorney Joseph Phillips said. But the Fire Department really began enforcing it only this year, Humphrey said.

The reason, he said, is that the number of false alarms has increased over the years with population growth and new businesses. The volume of calls is beginning to take its toll, he said.

"We've had problems with alarms for years," Humphrey said. "Our (false-)alarm load has gotten to the point now where getting through a 24-hour period (without one) is a stretch."

According to reports provided to the Williamsburg City Council, the department responded to 434 false alarms in fiscal 2006, 457 false alarms in fiscal 2007 and more than 300 alarms so far in fiscal 2008. The city's fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

The ordinance mainly applies to businesses or homes with monitored fire alarm systems, which automatically contact dispatchers each time the alarm is activated, Humphrey said. Whether a monitored fire alarm system is required by city code depends on the building's square footage and purpose.

Humphrey said the false alarms often occurred several times during the night, waking firefighters unnecessarily. The calls also cost money. On average, it costs about $300 an hour to send a pumper engine to a call, about $150 an hour to send a medic unit and $50 an hour to send a staff vehicle, Humphrey said. For most automatic alarms, he said, the department sends all three vehicles.

"Basically, it drains resources," Humphrey said. "It increases the potential for us to have an actual emergency occur in the time that this chronic false-alarm problem is occurring."

Humphrey said construction or remodeling at buildings often set off alarms. Anything from dust to hair spray to shower steam are possible culprits, he said, as well as technical problems in the system.

Copyright (c) 2008, Daily Press, Newport News, Va. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.