Fire Alarms: To Where Should They Report?

By Mark Jarratt and Aidan Whittle.

The management of fire alarm systems is a vital element of cohesive emergency control arrangements, but what are the issues that should be addressed in creating and maintaining fire and emergency controls to effectively protect personnel and assets?

Fire is a security risk event that if realised can cause significant harm and damage to business functions and vital assets, including staff and visitors, and can cause fatalities. The catastrophic nature of severe conflagrations means that in many cases, businesses affected by fire never open again.

Businesses of all types and in all sectors, whether government, industrial or commercial, must assess their exposure to fire and introduce prevention and response measures, ensuring the capacity to detect and respond to fire emergencies to minimise harm.

Other security risk events that require management and operational attention in the context of effectively managing fire and life safety include bomb threats, civil disorders, and intrusions such as lobby invasions, which can impede normal entry and egress.

In common with electronic security systems such as access control and intruder detection, fire alarm systems have various standard components. The hardware includes primary and backup power, detectors, manual call points (such as break glass release buttons), alarm notification devices (strobe lights, horns, sirens, speakers), interface with building management systems for air conditioning, elevators and internal smoke doors, occupant warning systems, and for larger sites, emergency warning and intercommunications systems (EWIS).

All devices and hardware connected to the fire alarm system report to the master fire indicator panel, which usually adjoins the main pedestrian entrance so fire fighters can easily access and operate the panel when an alarm activates. Modern fire systems also commonly integrate with other security and building management systems, reporting all events and alarm announcements to a master terminal or ‘head end’.

Effective command, control and communications for fire and other emergencies and incidents in progress require that all alarm and event notifications report to a central security post with the capacity to mobilise response action. This central security post is where the security, fire, and building systems head ends are installed, and is ideally operated by licensed and qualified personnel with a high degree of familiarity with the facility and the business.

At most office and commercial facilities, the responsibility to continuously monitor systems including fire, security and building management resides at a main guard post or reception point. The reception desk or guard post is usually located at the main pedestrian entrance, providing clear visibility of persons entering and leaving.

Authorised persons at the guard or reception point also frequently have the capacity to lock down or deny entry to the site when an emergency situation such as an actual or suspected fire is occurring, and to control all other security and building systems such as elevators. Operation of the main fire indicator panel is restricted to persons with appropriate knowledge and training such as fire brigade members.

To the question of where fire alarm system activation and alerts should originate, the textbook answer is: wherever the best and most effective response can be initiated to minimise harm and damage to life and property, and maximise survivability.

Business enterprises are ordinarily required to implement fire and emergency control arrangements that comply with relevant standards and legislation. Australian Standard AS3745-2010 Planning for Emergencies in Facilities sets out a recommended approach to the vital issues that must be addressed when creating and maintaining effective monitoring and response to incidents including fire alarm activations. Various state and territory fire codes and regulations must also be observed.

Similar to the risk analysis process used to determine protective security and asset protection strategies, the level of detail and extent of fire and emergency control management, procedures and operations will be dictated by the nature of business activities conducted at the site, whether it is one office or shop or many buildings at one location, whether potentially hazardous or dangerous items are present (such as flammable chemicals, explosives, weapons and ammunition), and whether factors such as remoteness from the nearest fire station oblige high readiness and self sufficiency.

Fire and emergency controls at special facilities need to meet basic standards and any additional specific requirements. An example of a facility with special needs which must be comprehensively addressed in the site emergency control monitoring and response arrangements is a remote site such as a mine depot’s explosives storage facility. The explosives store may rarely be attended, but as there is significant potential for catastrophe (for example, if a bushfire resulted in detonation) the local fire and emergency control arrangements may emphasise fighting the fire locally rather than immediately contacting the fire brigade. The fire brigade may be some distance from the site and reliance upon them without first fighting the fire locally would almost certainly ensure extensive damage, possibly from blast effects, with the associated heat, smoke, fire and confusion.

Facilities such as medical or aged care facilities also need special attention in planning fire and life safety arrangements, as many occupants may lack mobility so they require assistance to escape. The emergency planner, usually the Chief Fire Warden, needs to assess the number of attendants who may be needed to safely evacuate residents. For medical or aged care sites, the relevant standard is AS4083-2010 Planning for Emergencies – Healthcare Facilities.

At sites with specific fire and life safety threats, local emergency response resources will include water tanks, pumps and high pressure hoses, and the correct classes of extinguisher, increasing the likelihood that the operators will be able to mitigate loss, harm, and injury.

So the issue of where the fire alarm system should originate or to whom it should report is a central element of effective emergency management which must be clearly stated when designing the facility or deciding where the control point should be. Of itself, an effective command and control station will be insufficient to adequately protect the facility and occupants.

It is also necessary to establish a well-trained and observant firewarden organisation, with continual reinforcement of fire and life safety procedures. Emergency control organisation members should ideally act cooperatively with the fulltime security and reception personnel, so they become a ‘force multiplier’ and contribute to maintaining a safe and secure site.

There are many training courses for fire wardens, and for large and complex sites, professional qualifications such as the workplace emergency response certification offered by Fire Protection Association (FPA) Australia provide wardens with additional knowledge and confidence in dealing with life threatening situations. The FPA also offers certification programs for businesses that advise on writing and maintaining AS3745 emergency response procedures, and that provide training (for line staff) and education (for emergency response practitioners).

For most organisations, conducting regular realistic fire and emergency evacuation drills gives occupants sufficient familiarity with the site and escape routes to assist them in orderly evacuation without injury. Many organisations, however, fail to treat fire and evacuation drills with the seriousness they deserve, and when a real emergency occurs, staff may be confused and expose themselves to danger.

To maximise the chances of all site occupants departing in an orderly manner without panic, drills should be as realistic as possible. To create the requisite perception of an actual emergency, fire and security staff can switch off all lighting and activate canned smoke in work areas. Staff are more likely to treat emergency evacuation drills much more seriously when a realistic scenario shows they are not as familiar with office layout and escape routes as they thought, even if they have worked at the location for a long period.

The AS3745 standard provides sound guidance on the elements that should be established to make an organisation or facility confident of its ability to withstand an emergency such as a fire.

The minimum features include:

  • Developing the emergency plan
  • Forming an emergency planning committee and control organisation, and specifying their duties and responsibilities
  • Providing for disabled occupants
  • Education and training
  • Determining the size of the emergency control organisation.

The Building Code of Australia also mandates fire and life safety standards, including the requirement for single hands-free egress when fire alarms activate and doors connected to the building management and security access control systems open (‘fail safe’). For some high security sites such as government offices with a secure perimeter, the doors are set to stay closed (‘fail secure’), and the design must reflect the need to maximise security while not impeding egress.

The actual arrangements for fire and life safety alarm monitoring and response will depend on the nature of the facility. Responsibility can be shared between the firewarden organisation, facilities management, or security, provided respective duties are clearly defined. The standards are not overly prescriptive so the best organisational arrangements will be dictated by what is practical for that facility. Ideally, an integrated command, control, and communications structure will be established so that a cohesive response can be mounted to any potentially life or asset threatening situation by informing and involving all affected personnel, whether internal staff, visitors or response force members such as wardens, security guards, and fire fighters.


Mr Mark Jarratt, CPP, is Lead Security Consultant with Norman Disney & Young (NDY) consulting engineers, Canberra. He is Assistant Vice-President, Region 40 (Australia), ASIS International, and qualified for the Certified Protection Professional designation in 1999. Mark served as an Australian Customs officer for over 21 years, including as Chief of Security.

Mr Aidan Whittle, MEng (Fire Safety), is Senior Fire Engineer with NDY Canberra and has worked on various high-profile fire engineering and safety projects, including Australian Parliament House, the National Museum of Australia and large office buildings for Customs, FAHCSIA, Centrelink and DFAT.