8News investigates: Growing number of false alarms pulling first responders from real emergencies

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Firefighters are trained to be there for you when you call, but each year, thousands of calls are steering them in the wrong direction, potentially pulling crews and resources from real emergencies.

‘It is a high number and a lot of those calls could be avoided,” Richmond Fire Marshal David Creasy told 8News reporter Evanne Armour.

Creasy is talking about false alarms.

8News asked Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield fire departments, of all the calls their fire and EMS crews responded to in the last year, how many were false alarms?

In 2014, Richmond responded to 35,078 calls — 2,931 of which were false alarms.

Henrico responded to 41,754 calls — 2,684 of which were false alarms.

And Chesterfield responded to 37,390 calls — 1,799 of which were false alarms.

Firefighters say each time they’re dispatched to a false alarm, it stands the chance of negatively impacting a true emergency.

“Another call may come in and units that are further away may have to respond to that, so it’s going to be a slower response,” said Captain Daniel Rosenbaum of Henrico County Division of Fire. “It may be a friend or a family member that really needs those resources and could benefit from them being closer.”

It also unnecessarily guzzles gas, causes wear and tear on trucks and potentially impacts those on the road.

“Every time we hit the street, we’re at risk,” said Creasy.

False alarms fall into a number of categories. Many are the result of a malfunctioning system. Henrico, Richmond and Chesterfield fire departments say when individuals or businesses are having issues with their systems, they try to work with them to solve the problem.

Even more are due to unintentional false alarms.

“Smoke from the kitchen, steam from a bathroom, dust in a detector where the detector went off like it should, but it was for some other reason other than a fire,” explained Rosenbaum.

Creasy says, while alarms often go off even when there isn’t an actual fire, if there’s any question, they want people to give them a call.

“If they don’t know what’s wrong, we want them to call us because time is of the essence and we don’t want them to wait,” said Creasy.

But there are some things home and business owners can do to help cut back the chance their alarm acts up.

– Replace any smoke detector that is 10 years old
– Clean your smoke detector monthly but lightly vacuuming the outside of the alarm
– Test your smoke alarm each month
– Chance the batteries at least once a year
– Install on the ceiling or side wall no more than 12 inches from the ceiling
– Do not place within 4 inches of the corner of a room
– Smoke detectors placed in the kitchen often go off unintentionally
– Install smoke alarms for your basement close to the bottom of the stairs

Another subcategory of false alarms that Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond all experience on a yearly basis is malicious and mischievous calls.

“If we find someone is maliciously pulling a fire alarm or calling in false alarms, there is part in the fire code that allows us to charge that person criminally,” said Lt. Jason Elmore of Chesterfield Fire & EMS.

While Elmore, Creasy and Rosenbaum all say they prefer to work with individuals to stop the crime from occurring again, all departments can take it to the next level and take it to the courts.

Sometimes offenders can be forced to pay restitution for the trouble they caused. Each department follows its own formula to calculate the cost of a false alarm response.

For example, a 30-minute response to a false call at single-family home in Chesterfield could cost you about $3,400. Pulling the alarm at a commercial building there could rack up a bill of about $5,000.

“In their mind they’re playing, but it’s very serious,” said Creasy.

Creasy says sometimes their investigators might never find out who was behind a false alarm, but he says it is becoming more common to catch criminals on camera.

“Security camera, surveillance cameras that are up in schools, that are even covering the parking lot areas of convenience stores and many homes today have security cameras set up such that all we have to do is run the tape back and we can see the individual very clearly pull the alarm,” he said. “We’ve had many cases where that’s been a key factor in finding out who did what.”

Whether malicious or simply a mistake, firefighters say the fewer false alarms they have to respond to, the better prepared they are for a true emergency.

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