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AFA shout, what would you do?


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A common scenario perhaps but put yourself in charge of a pump turned out to a fire alarm actuating at a large commercial office building. It’s 4am, Sunday morning, the building is locked and nobody is about, no security etc... 

You‘ve not been there before so have little or no knowledge of the place.  There is no external sign of fire.  

What do you do when you learn from control that a keyholder is 2 hours away? 

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I would try to locate the fire alarm panel as they are often visible from outside through glass doors and try if possible to ascertain if one or more alarms are actuating. More than one then I would request full attendance assuming we are the only pump mobilised and attempt to force entry.

If only one alarm is actuating or I can’t see how many have actuated or simply can’t find the panel, then I will look for any access to the building at all using anything we have without forcing entry. If that’s not possible then a 360 of the building as much as possible using thermal scanner/TIC.

I would spend at least 20 minutes doing an external investigation depending on the size of the building. Send appropriate message to control and state key holder still required to attend.

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In GMFRS our policy is to carry out a 360 with a thermal scanner and send an informative to say as much. We are required to stay for a min of 20 mins. If satisfied, we can leave after 20 mins if there is no ETA or its going to be a long time for a KH. I then send a stop, reiterating "360 scan of exterior of building carried out. No apparent sign of fire, KH not in attendance and then make myself available. 

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Let' s not forget that the vast majority of AFD systems are designed for life safety purposes - to raise the alarm and assist people escaping. In the early hours when a building is empty, it serves no purpose in terms of its design brief . 

So if the fire service can confirm that there is no risk to life from an external scan, I think that' s job done

Where's premises has a more extensive property protection detection system, surely they are duty bound to ensure relatively easy access via a nearby keyholder or mobile security patrol? If they haven' t made those provisions, then there' s a huge hole in their business continuity strategy and not one of the fire service's making

However in cities like London, not having that aerial appliance on an AFA shout to stick up as an observation tower, or to place crews on a  roof for a walkabout, does make life a bit tricky when attending larger buildings that could hide a significant fire from an external sweep

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When I joined, Chiefs were great advocates of "we'll attend everything". Just look at what has happened to the UK Fire Service since we turned a corner and started filtering out calls. Fires in commercial premises have a cost to the economy in terms of insurance losses. Better a small fire that causes minor disruption to a business than the potential for it to go bust, let alone the increased risk to Fire Crews from dealing with a small outbreak detected by AFD opposed to trying to fight a losing battle in a building already well alight. Ask yourselves, outside of the Harrow Court's and Shirley Tower's of recent times, how many Ff's lost in the last 30 years would still be here if there had been a well maintained AFD in those buildings. Certainly the six LFB losses in that time may have been avoided.

The UK Fire Service needs to be seen, needs to be used and needs to record incidents differently. AFA systems are getting smarter and we need to get back into responding with financial penalties for those who think it’s OK to run with a badly maintained alarm system. The modern airy fairy thinking around reducing appliance movements and reducing risk from blue light journeys needs to end. In my time the UK Fire service has been devastated, it is a shadow of what it was in the late 80's, primarily because we had no evidence of what we should have been doing all along. We (the Fire Service collectively) have been a willing part of that devastation and things needs to change. Everyone from politicians to other blue light services are full of how little we do.

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Well this is very topical! Mid October at my dreary backwater of a station, we received a call at about 19.00 on a Friday to an AFA at a warehouse and office complex, directly opposite the station. We gained access through the gates to search for the exact building, as there are a few on the site as the call slip wasn't specific.

We eventually worked out what building it was and did a full external search, used the TIC, checked the doors and eventually found the panel. The panel could only be viewed by peering through the plate glass doors. I couldn't read it by one of my firefighters could, there was just 1 actuation. I've requested a keyholder and did an interweb search for contact details for the company but the search drew a blank.

So far, this is the AFA we've all been to hundreds, if not thousands of times before and walked away from but my spider sense was tingling and I remarked that it would be a shame to get this close to my pension just to lose it.  One of the standbys from A21 then suggests getting a ladder off to look at the first floor. We move the ladder all along the first floor windows but it's hard to see through the smoked glass but no signs of anything untoward. We check the panel again and there's a second actuation, this changes the perspective somewhat and we discuss how we will enforce entry. Then the burglar alarm goes off, then fails. Time for action. As we're about to do the expensive front door, a key holder arrives, he's the building facilities manager and was also part of the the team that constructed and designed the building. We gained access and read the panel, it showed an actuation in a server room and smoke in a nearby zone, both on the first floor. We walked through the rather nice offices and up on the first floor, through more plush offices and into to corridor, no signs of anything untoward until we turned a corner to see thick black smoke coming from all around the door seal. The glass viewing panel was also blackened. I asked the FM what was behind the panel to be told it was a server room of about 2m x 5m and an open staircase to a warehouse.

We've retreated back down the corridor to a side fire exit where the truck was parked and I've requested a full fire attendance.

The server room was 100% dxf. 3 large connected warehouses where completely smoke logged as was a large proportion of the building after we've gained proper access.

You never can tell!

I've got a few photos that may help if Carl can attach them.

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