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Fire alarms

A fire alarm is needed to warn people in your Place of Worship that there is a fire. Not all Places of Worship need to have a full electrical fire alarm system installed, but all premises need some means for one person to notify others of a fire.

For the smallest of Places of Worship, a simple hand wound bell or a whistle would be adequate. It is very important that it can be heard throughout the building and that whoever is operating the equipment is not going to be put at risk from fire.

For most other buildings, some form of electrical system would be recommended and this can include automatic fire detection to provide a more comprehensive system.

Electrical fire alarm systems

A simple fire alarm system would comprise a controller (with a power supply and backup battery), manual 'break glass' call points, alarm sounders or bells and possibly fire detectors.

Smoke detectors are recommended for the fast detection of fire, preventing harm to people and, in some systems, helping to protect the building and contents. The need for detectors would often follow from the Risk Assessment, which might identify situations where an outbreak of fire might not be detected and put life in danger.

Self-contained alarms include a call point and sounder in a simple enclosure that can be mounted on the wall next to exits. These offer a simple and easy solution for many buildings where the expense of a full-scale fire alarm and detection system cannot be justified.

The fire alarm system could be used in conjunction with the Public Address system in the case of larger Places of Worship.  Alarm systems that use speech (known as 'Voice Alarms') can lead to the effective evacuation of the building and the system can reduce panic where there are large numbers of people present. Loudhailers are a good backup in case the PA system fails but systems that are intended to be used as voice evacuation alarm systems need to be designed to the right standards to prevent failures.

In some parts of the building, for example bell-towers, a flashing strobe (or 'Visual Alarm Device') might be needed because the alarm sounder or bell may not be heard. Similarly, strobes are useful for compliance with disability discrimination law where deaf or hearing-impared people might not clearly interpret the alarm. 

With larger systems, the building can be split into different 'zones'. This makes it easy to find where the fire alarm has been set off by splitting the building into a number of areas. With some system types (known as 'Analogue Addressable' systems), each device is identified separately, making it very easy to pinpoint the exact device that has caused the alarm of fire.

A system would need to be installed by a reputable company because British and European standards exist to make sure that the system complies with the fire regulations.  The system might not protect you and your property and false alarms can be a problem with systems that are not designed to the standards (such as British Standard 5839, Part 1 which applies to fire alarm systems within buildings).

Fire detection

The most important place to have smoke detection in any building is along exit routes. This is to make sure that people have adequate warning that a fire could affect them as they try to leave the building. However, smoke detectors can be used to detect fire in all areas of the Church or Place of Worship to give you early warning. Some systems could even be used to protect the building, not just the people that use it, by alerting people out-of-hours when the system is activated.

Smoke detectors should normally be of the 'optical' type, which are more sensitive to smoke particles typical of fires that involve wood, paper and so on. The 'Ionisation' type, typically used in domestic smoke alarms, should normally be avoided because it can be prone to false alarms, but it might be useful for some circumstances.  The correct type of detection should, therefore, be selected by a competent person who has access to the Fire Risk Assessment for the premises.

Where normal smoke detectors would be too obtrusive, different system arrangements can be used. These include 'Beam detectors' and 'Aspirating' systems. Beam detectors work be sending a beam of light down the length of a room which is broken by smoke or sometimes interrupted by the hot air currents caused by fire.  Aspirating systems have a central smoke detector fed by small pipes (normally 6 mm / 1/4" to 25 mm / 1") placed around the area that is covered and can provide an unobtrusive solution for historic premises.

Heat detectors should only be installed where there is a high risk of false alarms (like in kitchens) but beware that they are less sensitive to fire and a significant fire can build up before the alarm is raised. Heat detectors are not suitable for protecting exits and corridors and they don't give the same amount of fire detection coverage.

Smoke detectors should not be placed within 3 metres of a kitchen because of false alarms, but this will not affect the speed that a real fire will be picked up. If fire detection is needed in these places, a heat detector is preferred but this should be assessed by someone who is competent in fire alarm system design.

Wireless Fire Alarms

Wires are used to connect most systems together, but some systems are available that use radio signals. Although these can be more expensive, there are major advantages where the routing of cables could cause damage to buildings of historic significance. 

With radio or wireless systems, it is important to note that the detectors are much larger is size and the system might need more maintenance to keep battery packs in good working order. However, the disadvantages are often outweighed by the advantage of not having to run fire alarm cables, which are usually bright red, all over the premises.

The installer must perform a survey of the building to ensure the suitability of the equipment prior to installation. Systems can fail if a survey is not properly undertaken.

Domestic smoke alarms in Churches and Places of Worship

Smoke alarms differ from fire detectors in that they are self-contained fire detection and alarm systems in their own right.  Smoke alarms are intended for domestic use, however, they might be used in some smaller, single-storey Churches and Places of Worship where only a few people gather.  The use of smoke alarms, rather than a full system, should be backed up by the Fire Risk Assessment and only considered as an option in the most basic of buildings.

If smoke alarms are to be used, they must be powered from the mains and include a suitable backup battery or power source. The units must be interconnected so that every unit will sound if any one smoke alarm detects a fire, ensuring that the alarm is audible in all parts of the premises.

The cheap, battery-powered type that can be bought in DIY stores and supermarkets are not suitable for Churches and Places of Worship because they fail to comply with regulations requiring two sources of power (the 'Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations').

The installation should be completed by a competent electrician and the number and location of alarms chosen carefully to ensure that there is adequate coverage (especially within exit routes).

The same general considerations to the positioning of standard fire alarm components apply to such smoke alarm based installations. Many fires in occupied premises are detected by a person well before the smoke detection operates, so it is important to ensure that a means of manually raining the alarm is available.  Some smoke alarms can be provided with call points for this purpose.

Given the recent drop in prices of fire alarm equipment, it is probably a better option to have a full system installed.  Not only will this prove more satisfactory, the system should last longer, be less prone to false alarms and provide better facilities for testing and maintenance.

Fire alarm testing and servicing

It is important that you test your fire alarm regularly to make sure that it works. You normally need to test your system every week but you must tell people who might be in your Place of Worship that you are about to test the fire alarm. It is common practice to put this on Fire Action posters or display a sign in an entrance lobby. A test is also useful to get people used to the sound of the alarm.

For hand-powered bells, turn the handle to make sure that the bell works and the alarm is loud enough and not muffled. Smoke alarms can be tested by pressing the test button, making sure that all the other smoke alarms sound at the same time. If you cannot reach the test button, use a broom handle to reach (you might need to put a screw in the end to help you push the button in if it is recessed).

With electrical alarm systems, you need to follow the instructions for the system. With most systems, you will use a test function on the control panel. If you then insert a special key into one of the manual call points, the alarms will sound briefly and the system will silence the alarm. You can test any call point in the building, but choose a different one each time.

Any electrical system needs to be serviced regularly.  It is recommended that systems should be serviced every six months by a competent fire alarm company. The company might suggest some changes to bring the system up to the latest standards and should also repair any faults as soon as they become apparent.

You need to make a note of when you tested your fire alarm (you could use a note book for this). Also, make a note of anything that did not work and what you have done (or are going to do) to fix the problem. The log can take any form you wish, however our Sponsor has produced an excellent Fire Log Book which is free.

False fire alarms

Most systems that are correctly designed and maintained should be free from false alarms. The key to making sure that your system is not prone to false alarms is simple: have it installed by a reputable company and have it serviced regularly.

Some false alarms are caused by the people who use the building. For example, if someone forgets to switch on an extractor fan in a kitchen or by someone smoking. A small proportion false alarms are caused by malicious behaviour, perhaps smashing the glass in a call point or by blowing smoke into a detector.

With many advanced systems, there is an option to give a staged response to detector operation. When a detector is set off, a warning is given so that a false alarm can be cleared without the main alarms sounding. However, breaking the glass on a call point will immediately sound the fire alarm.  These systems are ideal for some larger Churches and Places of Worship, where a trained fire warden can investigate the alarm before the premises is evacuated, allowing the alarm to be cancelled if it is in fact a false alarm.

Additional Information

Consult a specialist fire alarm installer for the design and installation of electrical fire alarm systems. Systems should normally be designed to meet British Standard 5839: part 1.

For details of a range of smoke and fire alarm equipment, including Radio fire alarm systems, visit our Sponsor's website: Safelincs, who also offer a nationwide fire alarm system servicing and maintenance package.

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