Changes to the fire and rescue service's response to fire alarms

Firefighters fighting fire

As from 1 June 2015 Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS) have changed the way they respond to some fire alarms. This section outlines the changes and provides further information on how businesses can reduce false alarms. It also includes some answers to frequently asked questions which you may find useful.

Prior to the change TWFRS wrote to all businesses/organisations across Tyne and Wear, and to all Alarm Receiving Centres, who will be affected by this change.  

Remember, in an emergency or where you know there is a fire in a building, dial 999 immediately!

Automatic Fire Alarms (AFAs)

Automatic fire alarms help to keep buildings and their occupants safe by providing an early warning of a possible fire and enabling people inside the building to evacuate. However, nearly a fifth of all incidents attended by TWFRS firefighters attended over the last five years were to false alarms from AFAs in non residential properties (buildings where people don’t live, such as shops, offices and businesses). 

That’s almost ten fire engines a day being sent out on blue lights to what turn out to be false alarms where there isn’t a fire.  

Fire and Rescue Services have no legal requirement to respond to calls originating from a fire alarm system to investigate if there is a fire.  We will always attend any premises that confirm their building is on fire through the 999 system.

Business owners and managers have a range of legal responsibilities they must meet regarding fire safety.

False alarms cause disruption to businesses and organisations, with many premises having to be evacuated; they also impact on productivity and can result in lost sales for businesses. They also mean that fire crews who attend these false alarms are not available to attend genuine emergencies where people’s lives may be at risk; nor to carry out critical training or work in the community to help prevent fires from happening in the first place.

Have a look at the false alarms tab below to see the most common cause of false alarms 

What is the change? 

From 1 June 2015, between the hours of 08:00 and 18:00 (this applies 7 days a week including bank holidays), TWFRS no longer automatically respond to investigate AFA calls to non-residential premises.  


  • A back up call is received via the 999 system reporting a fire or physical signs (such as a smell of burning);
  • You have been granted an exemption by TWFRS. 

This change in response does not apply to the following property types: 

  • All single private domestic dwellings and sheltered accommodation schemes;
  • Other residential premises such as hostels, hotels and care homes;
  • Hospitals;
  • Education premises such universities, colleges and schools including pre-school and nurseries;
  • Registered Control Of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) sites;
  • Premises who have successfully applied to TWFRS for exemption (see ‘Exemption Criteria’ tab below for further information).

Note the above policy change will apply to calls received direct from premises and via Alarm Receiving Centres. 

Between 18:00 hours and 08:00 hours, AFA calls to non-residential properties will continue to receive an emergency response. 

You should consider how the changes affect your premises and update your Fire Risk Assessment and Evacuation Plan.  Where necessary additional training for staff designated as Fire Wardens/Marshalls/Key holders may be required. How to investigate a fire alarm.  

Cause of False Alarms

Fire alarm and detection systems activate as a result of either an increase in heat or the presence of smoke. Unfortunately, they also react to things such as steam, cigarette smoke, aerosol sprays, light smoke from cooking and many other things.  

For more guidance and information on how to prevent and reduce false alarms in your buildings please download a leaflet.

What are the consequences of false alarms in your building?
  • It can cause disruption to your business affecting efficiency, profitability and services.
  • Frequent false alarms in a building cause staff to become complacent and less willing to act quickly when the fire alarm activates and there is a genuine fire in your building. This could put their lives in danger.
  • It ties up firefighters and fire appliances when they could be dealing with real emergencies.  Firefighters could also be carrying out vital training or delivering valuable fire safety advice in the community.

The most common causes of false alarms are:
  • Cooking fumes, such as burnt toast and the build-up of fat and grease deposits in ovens and grills.
  • Steam from showers and bathroom areas and kitchen cleaning appliances.
  • Smoking materials, including smoke entering open windows from outside of a building.
  • Aerosol sprays, such as hairspray, deodorant and insect repellent.
  • Hot work, from welding and cutting.
  • Dust build up, from poor housekeeping.
  • Incense and candles.
  • Humidity and sudden temperature change, e.g. opening an oven door.
  • Accidental or deliberate damage to break glass call points.
  • Testing or maintenance, without informing your alarm centre or incorrect testing procedure.
  • Changes to the use or practices within the building.


Many of these examples can be avoided at no cost by applying common sense.   

Remember, in an emergency or where you know there is a fire in a building, dial 999 immediately.

There are two exemptions criteria that non-residential premises can apply for and details of these can be found below.

1. Automatic Fire Alarm Exemption Criteria

Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS) will offer an exemption to premises protected by an Automatic Fire Alarm Detection System that meets all of the following criteria:

A .The fire alarm detection system meets the requirements of BS 5839 or equivalent standard.

B. Certification by a suitably qualified fire alarm engineer (preferably accredited by a third party) confirms it has been installed to this standard.

C. Evidence that the fire alarm detection system is maintained in compliance with the recommendations of BS 5839-1 or equivalent standard.

D. Evidence to be provided that the fire alarm detection system is configured to reliably actuate on a confirmed fire in the premises. This is where a fire signal output is only obtained when at least two independent triggering signals are present at the same time. These independent triggering signals may be from the same type or different fire alarm devices such as smoke/heat detectors, break glass call points, beam sensors, aspirating devices or two triggers from a single multi-sensor detector head. (An example of a qualifying system would be a ‘coincidence’ fire alarm system as defined by BS 5839-1:2013).

E. Proof of proactive management of the fire alarm detection system to prevent and reduce false alarms can be evidenced.

F. Records or logs of actuations of the fire alarm detection system and how the occupier has dealt with the false alarm to reduce further actuations.

G. Number of calls received from the premises to TWFRS supports the reliability of the management of false alarms at the premises.  

Application Process

Any premises applying for exemption under this criterion will undergo a two stage process.

Stage 1: the responsible person for the premises should be able to provide the following documentation which will be reviewed by TWFRS Fire Safety Officers:

      I.  Certification confirming that the fire alarm detection system has been installed to BS 5839 or equivalent standard. (Preferably with third party accreditation).

    II.   Evidence that the fire alarm detection system is maintained in compliance with the recommendations of BS 5839-1or equivalent standard. (Preferably with third party accreditation).

   III.   Certification confirms that a fire signal output is only obtained when at least two independent triggering signals are present at the same time. (Preferably with third party accreditation). 

Stage 2: will be a visit to the premises by a Fire Safety Officer to discuss the exemption application and to determine if the fire alarm arrangements meet TWFRS’s Automatic Fire Alarm Exemption Criteria. 

2. Exceptional Exemptions

Any Responsible Person that deems their premises have exceptional circumstances may submit a request for exemption to TWFRS.

Criteria have not been set for exceptional circumstances, each case will be considered on its own merits:

  • The onus is on the Responsible Person to submit their case to TWFRS;

  • The case must be based upon high risk to persons resulting from the change in attendance to AFA calls;

  • Exemptions will not be granted where TWFRS believes that reasonable action can mitigate the risk.

Exceptional exemptions will only be a temporary measure and they will be reviewed within 12 months. TWFRS expect the Responsible Person to work towards a permanent satisfactory solution. 

The Exemption  Application forms can be found by following this link.


Are all alarm receiving centre’s working with you on this policy?We are writing to all alarm receiving centres to advise them of this change. We would recommend...
Can I apply to be exempt from this change?Yes, there are two types of exemption that can be applied for 1. Exemption due to your alarm...
Does the fire and rescue service not have a legal responsiblity to attend fire alarmsFire and Rescue Services have no legal requirement to respond to calls originating from a fire...
Does this apply to all premises?No. This does NOT apply to the following premises types which will automatically get an emergency...
How can I reduce false alarms on my premises?For more guidance and information on how to prevent and reduce false alarms in your buildings...
How do I check for signs of fire?Signs of fire includes things like, obvious flames, smell of smoke, lights flickering or increased...
What are signs of a fire?Signs of fire includes things like, obvious flames, smell or signs of smoke, lights flickering,...
What is a false alarm?Fire and alarm detection systems react to phenomena that might indicate that there is a fire. ...
What is the change?We will no longer send fire appliances to calls from non-residential premises  between 8:00am...
What should I do now?You should do the following:- Ensure that the fire risk assessment  and Evacuation Plan...

Below are a number of leaflets you may find useful about fire safety in your premises.  Please feel free to download them and share them with your staff.


If you have a query after reading the information on the website and the frequently asked questions, please email it to firealarms@twfire.gov.uk or ring 0191 444 1664 or contact:

Fire Safety
Fire Service Headquarters
Barmston Mere
Tyne and Wear