Putting their lives on the line, Denver firefighters respond to thousands of fire alarms annually.
But the high number of false alarms means that about one in 10 of the emergency calls from monitored fire alarms is a waste of time, according to Denver Fire Department reports going back to 2001 obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
Hotels, hospitals and large apartment complexes create the biggest problems, records show.
The downtown Adam's Mark Hotel, the largest hotel in Colorado with 1,225 rooms, topped the list with 300 false fire alarms since 2001.
"You'd rather have the false alarm than have an alarm that doesn't go off if somebody's smoking right next to the smoke detector," said Adam's Mark General Manager Chuck Freije.
Fire alarms that malfunction and are triggered accidentally, or are set off maliciously, put Denver and other fire agencies in a quandary.
Implementing strict penalties and fines could lead property owners to cut corners, such as removing batteries from smoke detectors.
Fire officials said they would rather err on the side of caution than worry about charging fees for false alarms.
"Our biggest fear is that we will create an unsafe environment," Fire Chief Larry Trujillo said.
On the other hand, 34 firefighters died responding to false alarms between 1995 and 2004, said Rita Fahy, manager of fire databases and systems for the National Fire Protection Association.
Some of those false fire alarms were maliciously activated, making the deaths even more tragic, she said.
"These aren't just crash deaths," Fahy said. "They also include firefighters who died of heart attacks before, during or after the call."
False alarms are a hazard as well because firefighters could be pulled away from real emergencies, said Lt. Rob Martinez of the Westminster Fire Department.
Moreover, it costs taxpayers when gas-guzzling fire trucks go through wear and tear every time an alarm cries wolf.
The dilemma is not unique to Colorado.
"False alarms continue to tax the nation's fire services because fire departments cannot presume a call is a false alarm and must respond as they would to a fire," the National Fire Protection Association says.
"Why have false alarms become so common? One reason is that more home and commercial alarm systems are being installed," according to the association.
More alarms installed
The problem used to be worse.
The number of false fire alarms in Denver has decreased from 12,279 in 2001 to about 10,156 in 2005.
The drop can be attributed to "working with the businesses in a cooperative effort" to upgrade alarm systems, maintain them properly and correct any problems, said Capt. Warren Mitchell of the department's Fire Prevention and Investigation Division.
More than 30,000 monitored fire alarms exist in Denver.
Responding to false alarms isn't a total waste, either. Firefighters use them as training exercises, said Lt. Phil Champagne, department spokesman.
"The more often we're in those buildings, the more familiar we become with those buildings," he said.
The risk is too high for complacency to set in, the chief said.
"The way we do respond is at 100 percent every single run," he said.
Hospitals cut down problem
False fire alarms due to malfunction are the most worrisome. The two other classifications of false alarms - accidentally triggered and maliciously set - are considered less serious because the alarm did what it was intended to do.
Freije said the fire alarm system in the Adam's Mark Hotel is state-of-the-art.
"When you run a hotel and you have a lot of people sleeping in an environment that they're not used to sleeping in . . . it's hard to say that something could be too sensitive," he said.
Saint Joseph Hospital on Franklin Street has logged 223 false fire alarms since 2001. But it reduced the number from 70 in 2002 to 32 in 2005.
The hospital has spent about $1.3 million since 2003 updating its alarm system, said Al Davis, senior director of facilities management.
He said the hospital also launched an in-house education campaign that, among other things, identified steam from microwave popcorn as a cause of false fire alarms.
Children's Hospital on East 19th Avenue, which cut the number of false fire alarms from 61 in 2001 to seven last year, also upgraded equipment and expanded its safety education program.
In addition, the hospital installed plexiglass covers over fire alarms that will alert employees first when pulled.
"It stops the kids from messing with them," said Scott Connell, the hospital's safety manager.
Summoned to court
The fire department doesn't recover its costs for responding to false alarms, but it does go after repeat violators who refuse to fix faulty systems.
Since 2003, between 94 and 108 property owners with nuisance alarms have been summoned to court, records show.
The fire department also has an internal enforcement program. If an alarm system is problematic, the fire department can require the company to pay someone to guard the property.
"If we have a system that's not operating to our satisfaction, we require them to have a fire watch," which is a person working around the clock guarding the property, Mitchell said.
If it's an occupied, high-risk building, Mitchell said, the person guarding it could be a firefighter, costing the property owner between $32 and $37 an hour.
"If we have a complicated system, a large building . . . we'll have fire prevention personnel there, and that's $60 an hour," he said.
A fire watch at the former Regency Hotel off Interstate 25 cost the property owner $60,000.
"We ended up shutting them down," Champagne said. "They couldn't come under compliance."