Common False Alarms: What You Should Know

There are so many unnecessary alarms in Rockland County that the Fire Chiefs Association and Office of Fire and Emergency Services have embarked on a campaign to stop them before they go off. In this series, Patch takes a look at the causes, the consequences, and ways to change. Today: Common false alarms.
Generically, false alarms are any alarm activated when there's no emergency—whether what happened was inadvertent or negligent. 

Did you know that alarms go off all the time because the detector detects shower steam or smoke from overdone toast? 

Or microwave mishaps.

"Make sure when you heat up your Easy Mac in the microwave that you put the water in first so it doesn't burn," says Harold Straut, Former Chief and Commissioner of Nanuet Fire Department and Fire Inspector for the Town of Clarkstown. "That happened Super Bowl Sunday, right at kick-off."

Did you know smoke detectors can be activated by dust from construction or particles from welding? They can. In 2012, 33 percent of fire calls in the county were unnecessary alarms—and 15 percent of those caused by contractors working on commercial or residential properties. 

Here are the most common causes of unnecessary alarms, according to Chris Kear, the county's deputy fire coordinator.


  • Smoke detectors too close to kitchen (cooking smoke)
  • Smoke detectors too close to bathroom door (shower steam, not using fan)
  • Failure to maintain fire alarm system: Old/outdated system, or old detectors, no maintenance/testing by alarm company
  • Use of incorrect key pad codes.
  • Failure to train/educate family members on how to use the system
  • Failure to take alarm system out of service/offline when work is being performed in home
  • Failure to cover smoke detectors so they do not get contaminated from work being done in home
  • Failure to quickly contact alarm the company to cancel when owner is 100% sure the activation is false (Must have the proper code to cancel)

Commercial Buildings

  •  Failure to take fire alarm system out of service/offline when work is being performed in the building
  • Failure to train employees on the alarm system
  • Failure to notify employees and occupants when fire alarm system is being tested so that they do not call and state that the fire alarm is going off in the building. This will result in a fire department response because once a call is made to report such an incident (alarm sounding), the fire department must be dispatched.


  • Failure to have a protective cover on fire alarm pull station.
  • Old/out dated fire alarm system.
  • Failure to have fire alarm system tested and inspected on a regular basis.
  • Having unqualified persons working on the fire alarm system.
  • If the fire alarm system was out of service/offline; placing it back in service/online before the alarm panel/system fully clears.  
Smoke detectors in the wrong place
  • Do not have a smoke detector in a kitchen or kitchenette.
  • Do not have a smoke detector in a garage or loading dock area.
  • Do not have a smoke detector in a place where steam is created, be it laundry area, dry cleaning, food steam table, bath/showers, or areas where portable steam machines are used to remove wrinkles from clothing.
  • Do not have a fire alarm pull station too close to a door or exit way where it can be easily damaged.

Unnecessary alarms affect firefighters' ability to protect residents and affect taxpayers who fund fire services. Read more about Rockland County's problem in our series' first installment:

Unnecessary Calls Plague Rockland Firefighters


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