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False alarm decrease: Queenstown's volly fire crews are being called out less often for false alarms, in part due to stricter rules

By MATTHEW MCKEW

False alarms that see Queenstown’s volunteer firefighters called out at all hours for burnt toast are falling, in part due to strict rules that can see hotels lose their building warrant of fitness.

Fire chiefs used to issue fines of more than $1000 to deal with misdemeanours, but that was stopped when Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) was created.

FENZ’s fire risk management officer John Smalls, brought in five years ago to stop an escalating problem of false alarms in Queenstown, says fines never really worked.

‘‘You lost a bit of good faith and — although it wasn’t the case — it looked like you were trying to slap somebody on the wrist and call them a ‘naughty boy’.

‘‘We ended up waiving fines far more often than we took them.’’

He says some hoteliers simply absorbed the cost or tried to ‘‘recoup the fine from the person who burnt the toast’’ rather than fix the problem.

Unlike household smoke detectors, sensors in commercial properties are often required to have automatic connections to the fire service as part of their building regulations.

Now there’s a ‘‘much bigger stick to be wielded if needed’’, Smalls says, and a reason to get stakeholders around the table.

‘‘If you get more than six false alarms in a 12-month period, we can disconnect you and that could have a detrimental effect on your building warrant of fitness.’’

When Smalls started in 2015, 189 incidents (55% of the total attended) were false alarms with the bulk coming from hotels.

Incidents rose to 248 in 2018-19, before dipping back down to 222 in 2019-20, constituting 48% of total calls.

Smalls says the figures mask both the scale of the problem and the progress made.

‘‘Raw numbers have certainly gone up … but just this year alone, we have got 89 more
alarm systems in Queenstown.

‘‘If you are going up by 80 a year, you’re going to have a certain percentage more activations.’’

False alarms bring more than just financial costs to FENZ, he says.

They also take a toll on the vollies responding, causing them to feel ‘‘disillusioned’’ when they have to attend the same old properties.

‘‘Everyone has to leave their work, so economically it’s costing their own business or their employers, you’re also putting local people at risk by driving an engine under lights and speed.’’

He says businesses also run a risk of getting a ‘‘boy who cried wolf’’ reputation and people not reacting properly — excluding firefighters — when there’s a real incident.

FENZ is working closely with ‘‘problematic buildings’’, including one hotel that previously caused up to 22 false alarms a year and now rarely has incidents.

Smalls honed in on a dozen or so buildings, working with them to fit new alarms that suited their rooms and facilities.

The new detectors have the ability to be disabled in kitchenettes if they are activated by mistake, or require two indications of fire before sounding.

But, for Smalls, the best way to avoid false alarms is training staff to understand the systems — and Queenstown’s transient population makes that difficult, he says.

He feels with Covid-19 mothballing many hotels and migrants going home, he may
have to start all over again to educate people.

matthew.mckew@scene.co.nz