UK’s false alarms rack up real costs

Will Wright

Judging by the numbers, the sound of fire trucks should be as familiar to students as the sound of construction.

A data analysis by the Kentucky Kernel showed that the Lexington Fire Department responded to campus more than 460 times between Jan. 20, 2015, and Jan. 21, 2016, rarely to actual fires.

UK’s fire protocol works on a better-safe-than-sorry philosophy. This policy, mandated by law and by the UK Fire Marshal, means fire trucks roll out quickly and often, mostly to buildings where there is no real threat of fire or any other emergency.

For example, if workers are told that someone smells smoke or gas in a residence hall or classroom building, the policy is to always pull the fire alarm and evacuate everyone from the building.

For students in residence halls, this should serve as a reminder to be extra careful to not burn the popcorn.

UK’s director of the Physical Plant Division, Kevin Kreide, said that if the Lexington Fire Department responds to an alarm in a residence hall, nine times out of 10, it is because of burnt popcorn, too much hairspray or some other student-caused error.

The fire department responded to residence halls 79 times in 2015.

Assistant director of the Kentucky State Fire Marshal’s Division of Fire Prevention Richard Peddicord also said occupants must take some responsibility for the number of times the fire department comes to campus.

But of the more than 460 total responses in 2015, 338 were listed by the Lexington Fire Department as unintentional, a false alarm or a malfunction.

The next most common responses were because someone smelled smoke or because someone was stuck in an elevator.

Lexington Fire Department Captain Daniel Case said it is hard to quantify exactly how much it costs the department to respond to all these calls. Firefighters are paid by the hour, so the only real monetary expense is gasoline for the trucks.

Though some cities have a “false alarm ordinance” that allows a fire department to charge for false alarms, UK does not help pay for those costs, even if the alarm went off due to a malfunction, Case said. The fire department pays for UK’s calls as they would any other call in Lexington.

President of Lexington Professional Firefighters Chris Dartley said few cities have a false alarm ordinance, and that charging people for responding to false alarms could persuade them to stop using alarms at all.

“That’s the kind of fear that we’ve always had locally,” Dartley said. “Usually those (ordinances) come about during budget cuts, and cities are looking for a quick way to make a buck.”

Neither the University of Louisville nor the University of Indiana pays a fee when the city responds to a false alarm. University of Louisville Fire Marshal Dwain Archer said most false alarm ordinances are in small municipalities where fire departments are heavily reliant on donations.

Peddicord said the state Fire Marshal’s office believes local fire departments should have their own say on responding to false alarms. Whether or not UK must pay for how much the Lexington Fire Department responds to false alarms is for the city to decide, he said.

Lexington Public Safety Commissioner Ronnie Bastin said the city does not have any plans to implement any such ordinance.

UK does not pay a fee when the fire department responds to a false alarm, but it does spend a lot of money making sure all buildings on campus are up to code.

The university spent more than $920,000 between January 2015 and March 21, 2016, on projects including repairing broken fire alarms and performing yearly and monthly inspections on alarm systems and sprinklers.

Every sprinkler, alarm system and other fire safety device is inspected every year.

While calculating the amount of money the fire department spends responding to calls is difficult, there is always a cost to safety when fire trucks leave the station.

“The more we’re out on the road … of course it increases the possibility of an incident happening on our way there,” Case said.

Campus is especially tricky to navigate, Case said. Sharp turns like that of “the 90” — the corner of Hilltop and Woodland avenues — and the number of pedestrians make driving long fire engines difficult.

For a typical call, the fire department sends about nine people. Those firefighters are usually split up between two fire engines, a ladder truck and a suburban. Firefighters typically arrive within a few minutes and stay on scene for between 15 and 45 minutes.

Dartley said the Lexington Fire Department and the UK Fire Marshal work closely to make sure broken alarms are fixed, and to prosecute people who pull fire alarms maliciously.

The total number of false alarms has dropped dramatically since the beginning of Dartley’s 17-year career, he said.

Better fire alarm technology, and even UK’s smoking ban, have helped decrease the number of times the Lexington Fire Department’s trucks roll out to campus.