False alarms become nuisance, fines needed, Hilton Head fire chief says

bheffernan@islandpacket.comFebruary 2, 2013 

Capt. Chad McRorie, left, evaluates Fire Apparatus Operator Jeff Weber as he conducts a simulated firefighting operation at the Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division's training center on Friday. Training is one of the things that can be interrupted when firefighters are forced to respond to false alarms.

JAY KARR ' STAFF PHOTO — Jay Karr, staff photo

  • 785

    Number of false alarms in 2012 on Hilton Head


    Percentage of all fire calls on Hilton Head that are false alarms


    Average number of minutes a false alarm keeps two Hilton Head Island fire engine crews unavailable for actual emergencies

    Source: Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division

Nineteen times last year, the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division sent fire engines -- sirens blaring and lights flashing -- to the same resort hotel.

All but two instances were false alarms.

On Hilton Head, there is no penalty for repeated false alarms. Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas is asking the town to change that.

The division responded to 785 false alarms in 2012 -- 44 percent of its total calls, according to division data. That's a problem because they make firefighters and equipment unavailable for real emergencies, cause unnecessary stress on the firefighters and wear and tear on their equipment, Lucas said.

Although Lucas said he couldn't remember a time when a false alarm kept the division from responding to a real emergency, he said the department's "response and arrival are fairly routinely delayed" because the closest unit is busy with another call.

The division keeps seven units active most days. It responds to an average of two false alarms per day.

The chief suggests that the town fine property owners after three or more false alarms in a six-month period. Lucas did not say how much the fine should be.

Beaufort County has a similar ordinance that imposes a $50 charge for a third false alarm within six months of the previous alarm. The fine increases by $50 with each occurrence.

Lucas said the ordinance would address malfunctioning alarms, not kitchen blunders.

"If they burn the muffins in the oven, that's an example of an alarm system that's working properly," said Lucas.

"We wouldn't want to create something that would make the property owner want to disconnect their alarm in order to avoid a fee."

Some alarm companies will call the property owner to ensure there is an emergency before notifying the fire division.

Last year, 79 properties registered three or more false alarms, according to division data.

The town has debated a nuisance-alarm ordinance before. Town manager Steve Riley said the town decided in 1996 to focus on teaching people more about the fire code, rather than issuing fines. He remembers it helped.

False alarms accounted for 26 percent of the fire department's workload then.

Beaufort Fire Department Chief Sammy Negron says he can't remember a time in the past 19 years his department has needed to issue a fine for false alarms.

The city has adopted state fire codes. Negron's department sends fire marshals to meet with those responsible for false alarms to explain code violations and how to fix problems.

"If you enforce the fire code, then you don't have to create a separate ordinance," he said.

Last week, the Hilton Head Island Public Safety Committee reviewed the Fire & Rescue Division's request for a nuisance-alarm ordinance.

Councilman Marc Grant, committee chairman, said the issue deserves examination.

"If you continue to have fire alarms that are going off for no reason and they're not addressing the problem, then there should be a fine against the people," Grant said.

The committee is expected Monday to forward the recommendation to Town Council, which could then ask the Fire & Rescue Division to draft an ordinance.

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.

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Hilton Head fire chief calls for ban on open burning, Jan. 31, 2013

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