Madison Fire Marshal: False alarms compromise safety, waste money

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Each year the Madison Fire Dept. responds to roughly 24,000 calls. But nearly 10 percent are not for an actual emergency.

"We put a lot of time and effort into bringing down the false alarms, and they just continue to hover around that 2,200 mark," said Madison Fire Marshal Ed Ruckriegel.

Some of the false alarms are intentional, like kids pulling pranks at school. And a lot of them are well-intentioned. For example, a concerned neighbor may hear a smoke detector go off in a nearby apartment.

"They don't know what's going on, they might smell something in the hallway, so they call," Ruckriegel said. "And we get there and it's careless cooking. You know, food on the stove, food left unattended."

However, the majority stem from structure flaws, like malfunctions in alarm and sprinkler systems because they aren't being checked enough, or some detectors are located in sensitive rooms, like the kitchen.

"A lot of it has to do with system maintenance," Ruckriegel said. "If the property owner isn't maintaining the system, that can cause false alarms."

The result is wasted resources, and time. Approximately $5 million of taxpayer money was spent on these false alarms in 2012--calls that took firefighters away from real fires, compromising safety.

"When they're out responding to a false alarm, that means they're not available for another response," Ruckriegal said. "It's one of those things that, I won't say no matter what we do, but we put a lot of time and effort into bringing down the false alarms, and they just continue to hover around that 2,200 mark."

In an effort to crackdown on the problem, the fire marshal says there are now ordinances in place to help prevent repeat offenders.

"Our fire inspectors look at the false alarm reports and follow up with the owners," he said.

"While doing the inspections, testing the switches, anything else with the sprinkler systems does help because that makes sure that they do operate," said Dan Hillery with Peerless Fire Protection out of McFarland.

Hillery says he's also been much more vigilant in recent years about warning alarm companies when he'll be doing his inspections.

"The first thing we do is call the alarm company, put the system on test," Hillery said. "Sometimes if they don't put the correct account on test, we go ahead and do our testing, and then they do go ahead and call the fire department and dispatch. "

They are easy steps that will ultimately make firefighters' jobs more efficient, and make the community a safer place.

"Many, many false alarms can be prevented," Ruckriegel said.