More than 10 percent of the Fire Department’s budget is wasted on false calls.
The department spent more than $1.1 million last year responding to calls in which they were not needed, sometimes because someone had maliciously pulled an alarm to summon them, fire officials said.
In many other cases, landlords had not maintained their automatic fire detection systems, causing repeated false alarms.
Mayor Gary McCarthy wants to cut back on false calls to save money. Reducing calls can allow the department to call in fewer firefighters on overtime and save on wear and tear from driving expensive rigs across the city unnecessarily. Fewer miles driving could also cut down on fender-benders that the city must pay for and reduce insurance costs.
It’s a huge problem. About four out of every five fire calls is a false alarm.
And while firefighters rush out to medical calls more often than anything else they do, false calls are still the second most common call they get.
Out of 15,251 calls last year, both medical and fire, 2,228 were false alarms. There were 537 actual fires.
That’s not counting calls made with good intent, because residents misinterpreted steam for smoke or put out a pan fire before firefighters arrived. Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco only counts the calls in which there was never any fire, nor any reasonable sign of one.
The biggest culprit is machines. Many apartment buildings in the city have hard-wired alarm systems that are supposed to automatically call the Fire Department when they sense smoke or heat. But they are sensitive machines, and without regular maintenance, they may interpret anything to be a sign of fire.
“Usually what happens is we’ll have a number of calls before that preventative maintenance takes place,” Della Rocco said. “The greatest percentage of all our false calls occur with multiple occupancy [houses] and systems that haven’t been maintained.”
The county jail has kept firefighters busy regularly with false calls, he added.
“Last year there were a large number of false alarms. My understanding is they’re going to upgrade the system,” he said.
But until then, firefighters must respond to each call in case it’s real.
City officials are now fining owners who have repeated false alarms. But they get several “free” false alarms before the fines begin, Assistant Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said. The fines ratchet up if the false alarms continue.
Even so, many property owners don’t fix their system before they get fined.
“We bill a lot of them, actually,” he said.
Last year, the city recouped $7,000 to $8,000 in fines, he said.
Those who pull an alarm without seeing signs of a fire can also be fined, but it’s sometimes difficult to figure out who did it.
Della Rocco recalled one case in which a woman pulled the alarm box outside her house because she had locked her keys inside.
Alarm boxes have been so badly abused that firefighters drive slowly — without flashing lights and sirens — if dispatchers register just one pull on a box. Driving slowly is far safer, but minutes count if there’s a real fire.
Della Rocco said he only tells the firefighters to speed up if the box registers repeated pulls.
“That means someone’s seeing something,” he said.
McCarthy said city officials may consider sending fewer trucks to some fire alarms because so many turn out to be false.
The most expensive false alarms: schools.
Della Rocco said his firefighters have to respond to many “malicious” alarm-pulls at the city schools.
“One lesson that we try to teach children who have pulled a false alarm is that when firefighters are responding to a false alarm, they are not able to help somebody who is truly in need of assistance,” he said.
One school alarm takes most of the department’s resources. The department sends out several trucks to any school alarm, because it would take many firefighters to control a real fire in one of Schenectady’s large schools.
They can’t take the risk that it might be a false alarm, Della Rocco said.
A regular apartment building gets a smaller response, but it’s still significant: one firetruck, one fire engine, and the platoon commander.
That response costs the city about $508 if there’s no fire, Della Rocco said, basing the figure on average salary and vehicle costs.
And that’s not taking into account what might happen as firetrucks race to the scene. There’s always the chance that the truck could hit a car in the hurry.
“The potential for accidents and injuries to citizens and fire personnel increases with miles traveled. Often, fire rigs will have to respond across the city, only to find that a malfunctioning or poorly maintained system has been the reason for the alarm,” Della Rocco said.