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False alarms and fraternities: The importance of solving problems upstream

With their nuisance call assumptions found to be incorrect, officers take a new approach to solve the problem


“Our lack of understanding of the real problem made it impossible to find a real solution,” Linda Willing writes.

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When I was an officer at the fire station nearest the University of Colorado, we used to joke that our station motto was “We Rule the Night.” Our station had more after-dark calls than any other station in the city, and many of these calls were to locations on or near the university campus. We responded to a lot of false fire alarms, and a good number of these alarms involved fraternities adjacent to the college.

Those responses were a common source of complaint between crews at shift change. Some nights we would have three or more false alarms in addition to other emergencies. As we commiserated, we assumed certain realities about these calls:

  • We assumed that all of the fraternities were generating false alarms.
  • We assumed that most of the alarms were either malicious or the result of carelessness.
  • We didn’t question how we were responding to these calls, assuming all the crews were handling them in the same way.

We were wrong on all counts. And our lack of understanding of the real problem made it impossible to find a real solution. Instead, we just continued reacting. And complaining.

Renewed focus on all assumptions

I thought of the fraternity alarm problem when I recently read Dan Heath’s new book “Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. The title of the book refers to the old story about two people suddenly discovering babies floating down a river. They immediately spring into action, exhausting themselves as they rescue baby after baby. Then one person stops and walks away. The other confronts that person: What are you doing? There are babies to be saved here! And the first person replies, I’m going upstream to figure out why babies are floating down the river in the first place.

Similarly, we needed to go upstream to effectively deal with the fire alarm problem. When we did, we were surprised by what we found.

Who generates the alarms? The first step was to analyze available data. I went back through two years of incident reports for fire alarms at fraternities and discovered something unexpected. We had assumed that all the fraternities were contributing equally to the problem, but in fact, only four fraternity houses accounted for more than half of the fire alarms.

What was the reason for the alarms? A deeper analysis of the data was necessary to answer this question. This was frustrating at first because some of the officers writing the reports chose the generic “Other” code as the cause for the alarm rather than identifying the specific cause. These officers probably felt that nobody was particularly interested in a run report about a false fire alarm, and so chose the path of least resistance when writing the report. In most cases, I was able to read the narrative part of the report to get the information I needed.

What I found from this research also defied our expectations. Most of the false alarms in fraternity houses were not a result of malice or carelessness. They were the result of system malfunctions and bad maintenance.

How were officers responding to these calls? Were we being consistent in how we acted? Again, the assumption was yes; the reality was no. This question required a more qualitative approach. Some officers took a laissez-faire attitude: If there was no real problem and residents reset the alarm panel before firefighters got there, so be it. Others took a hard line. Sometimes the same officer would take two different approaches in two different circumstances.

Consistency and advocacy minimize the problem

Now, armed with real information, we were able to move forward with a plan.

Conversations with other officers quickly generated consensus that a consistent approach to the alarms was in everyone’s best interest. The safest strategy was to have the residents leave the alarm sounding until we were able to arrive and determine if there was real hazard present. We agreed to guidelines that we would share with the fraternity community, and I printed up one-page instruction sheets to be posted on every fire alarm panel. “Stop!” the page read. “Do not silence or reset the alarm. The fire department will be here within minutes. Evacuate the building and await instructions once the fire department is on scene.”

Changing behavior around fire alarms was not easy at first. The fraternity members were accustomed to inconsistency from us. The ones who lived in the houses with frequent alarms got so used to false alarms that they just blew them off. We had to hold firm to the new standards we set.

But with the information we now had, we knew that most of the alarms were not deliberate. As we formed relationships with the members around the new expectations, we also asked what we could do to help them. Without exception, they told us that when they tried to call the alarm company to get necessary service on the system, they were often discounted or completely ignored. A problem that might trigger an alarm on Friday was still triggering alarms by the following week.

That was something we could help with. It was one thing for an alarm company to downplay the concerns of a 19-year-old college kid. They reacted quite differently when a fire officer contacted them about the same problem.

In this way, we became advocates for the fraternity members – allies instead of adversaries. And they valued this alliance by stepping up to meet our new expectations.

Did we eliminate false fire alarms at fraternities as a result if this effort? Of course not. But we did substantially reduce these calls. And even better, we developed relationships with real understanding on both sides. This gave us a framework for problem-solving in ways far beyond false fire alarms.

Editor’s Note: Have you experienced a similar situation where simply finding the problem upstream helped remedy a situation? Share your experience in the comments.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.