Frequently Asked Questions

Questions & Answers - CFS Monitored Alarms

Q1.      Why will the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS) charge for the connection, monitoring and attendance at automatic unwanted alarm activations?

In the State Budget handed down on 16th September 2010, the State Government announced their decision to introduce service fees and charges for the CFS.

As a result of this decision, the CFS will commence charging for the connection, monitoring of fire alarms and attendance at unwanted false activations (UFAs) as of 1st July 2011.

This is predominantly due to the increasing number of times the CFS attends buildings where it is clear that fire alarm systems are either not performing to Australian Standards, or are not being maintained to a performance standard that prevents unnecessary fire alarm activations.

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Q2.      What are chargeable and non chargeable UFAs?

A chargeable UFA is a false alarm or unwanted alarm from a fire alarm system where the cause of the false alarm is due to an activity of an occupant or inaction of an owner and where the activation of the alarm can be prevented.

A non chargeable UFA is a false alarm or unwanted alarm from a fire alarm system where the cause of the false alarm is considered to be beyond the control of the owner/occupant and is unforeseen or unpredictable and where no activity of an occupant can be held responsible for the alarms activation.  (This includes storms or other acts of nature or occurrences that the owner cannot control).  Attendance to a fire alarm activation where a fire has occurred is a non chargeable response.

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Q3.      Under what circumstances will the CFS charge for attending UFAs caused by, for example: cooking fumes, burnt toast and other similar unwanted activations?

No charge will be made for attendance at fires within the CFS gazetted boundaries. A charge may be generated following analysis of the reason for the fire alarm activation in light of the definition of a chargeable UFA (refer to Question 2). A charge may be generated as a result of, for example, cooking fumes activating a smoke detector due to people not adequately supervising the cooking activity. This is a matter that can be managed by the occupant or building design features that can be utilised to control cooking fumes.

If the actual cooking appliance is faulty, and has caused a fire - no charge will be made. However, the fault in the appliance will need to be reported by the attending fire officer, and the appliance manufacturer advised. There will be an investigation of any potential fire risks associated with that device. If necessary a public warning may be issued.

The role of a smoke detector is certainly to recognise the incipient stages of a fire in order to give early warning of an emergency. In those terms, it is recognised that the smoke detector has "done its job".

However Australian Standards/The Building Code of Australia require buildings must be designed with systems installed that are "fit for the purpose" of that building. This means that you should be able to cook toast without activation of the fire alarm system.

The reason for installing an automatic fire alarm system is:

  • To provide early warning of fire to the occupants;
  • To allow safe and early evacuation of the building;
  • To protect occupants from illness or injury;
  • To provide CFS with early notification of a fire in a building;
  • To reduce loss of life;
  • To allow early CFS response to a fire in a building;
  • To reduce the amount of business lost;
  • To reduce building damage;
  • To minimise risk to the public who attend unfamiliar properties;
  • Required by the Building Code of Australia, or in older buildings - the legislation at the time;
  • As a duty of care in the interest of the public.

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Q4.      As a manager of a building that has numerous occupants and tenants, how do owners/occupiers forward or apportion CFS chargeable alarm accounts to either the tenant, or person associated with creating the Unwanted False Activations?

The CFS has an obligation to forward all chargeable alarm invoices to the person/agent with whom the CFS have entered into a fire alarm monitoring agreement. The decision in relation to how a CFS account is disbursed (if any disbursement is to occur) to any particular person or tenant within the complex is the responsibility of the building body corporate/managers. In the case of malicious UFA, the property manager has the recourse of provisions within the law to seek reimbursement from the perpetrator.

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Q5.      Does a building receive any free unwanted alarms?

In some circumstances the CFS will allow monitored automatic fire alarms an initial free call to an unwanted alarm call. There is also a grace period in which time is available to rectify the problem. The length of time for rectification varies and depends on the day of the week (in relation to the original alarm activation).  Should second or subsequent UFAs occur within 60 days, the second and any subsequent UFAs will be chargeable. 

The 60-day period is not based on 60 days from the first of the month. The start of the 60 days commences when a chargeable alarm occurs, and an invoice is created when a second and any subsequent chargeable alarm occurs within 60 days of the first chargeable alarm. Currently, the first chargeable alarm may be free and the second and subsequent chargeable alarms are invoiced.

Additional consideration is given for incorrect testing by building owners/occupiers. A charge occurs if there are more than three UFAs in a 60 day period.  This is to encourage building owners/occupiers to be familiar with their fire panels and evacuation systems.

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Q6.      What is the purpose of a free UFA in a 60-day period?

The purpose of a free UFA is to recognise that sometimes accidents may happen, and to provide the owners/occupiers with an opportunity to address the cause of the unwanted alarm to ensure that no further UFAs occur in the future. The failure of owners/occupiers to improve poorly performing automatic fire alarm systems will result in charges being applied.

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Q7.      How does the CFS decide which alarm activation will be chargeable?

The attending fire officer investigates the cause of the fire alarm activation and notes this information in the fire report. A computerised query of the electronic fire report is compiled to identify all call-outs to monitored automatic fire alarms. The electronic query lists the calls in order showing the reason for the alarm activation.

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Q8.      Why should owners/occupiers take responsibility:

  1. for the maintenance of the alarm system when they personally did not install the original system;  and
  2. to ensure that the fire alarm system operates correctly?

On change of ownership of the premises, the new owner must sign the CFS "Agreement to Connect" form which lays out their obligations and the obligations of the Fire Service. In most cases the installation of the fire alarm and monitoring of the system by the CFS is a requirement under the Building Code of Australia (BCA).

The CFS "Agreement to Connect" requires the building owner to "maintain the fire alarm detection or suppression system in good working order". Minister's Specification SA 76, called up in SA Development Act 1993 specifies the requirements for maintenance of fire alarm systems.

As responsible Corporate citizens, as a duty of care, and in recognition of the actual consequences of a non-operable business due to a fire (that occurred because poor fire alarm system performance led to the isolation of various sections), owners/occupiers have a formal and ethical responsibility to ensure the automatic fire alarm system is compliant to required standards.

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Q9.      Why does the CFS want to reduce the number of UFAs?

One of the responsibilities of the CFS is to educate all sections of the community in best practice safety procedures. The CFS is committed to an objective of significantly reducing complacency amongst the community when a fire alarm operates.

The fire alarm is an early warning device that is being ignored too often. It is often being regarded as just another UFA.  This cultural view represents a greater risk to the community and fire-fighters responding to UFAs. Too many people have died as a result of poorly performing fire safety systems.

Until determined otherwise the CFS response to UFAs is for a fire in the building (under lights and sirens).  Responding to a faulty fire alarm system because the fire alarm system was not performing appropriately is unacceptable when responsible parties could have managed the performance of the automatic fire alarm system. The time consumed by the CFS attending UFAs can be better utilised undertaking tasks that are more important to achieving fire safety in the community. 

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Q10.    Why does the CFS forward an account for the activation of automatic fire alarms that upon investigation show no sign or reason for the activation?

A correctly operating fire alarm system is installed to provide early warning of a fire. In the event of a fire, generally telltale signs of the combustion process are evident in some form. The occurrence of an actual fire does not result in an invoice for a chargeable alarm being generated.

Where the fire alarm system has facilitated a fault that causes an alarm activation (that is for a technical reason, and in the absence of clear evidence of a fire triggering the alarm), it is evident that the some part of the automatic fire alarm system is not functioning correctly.

A fire alarm panel that is not operating correctly is the responsibility of the owners/occupiers to manage. Therefore, where the reason for the UFA is an improperly operating fire alarm system, and there was no need for the CFS to attend, an invoice may be generated.

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Q11.    What can fire service providers/companies do to improve an existing automatic fire alarm system that is creating numerous UFAs?

The building owners/occupiers should contact the body corporate, senior management, automatic fire alarm technician, consulting engineer, and/or certifier, requesting an options paper report of the choices about how to improve the performance of the fire alarm system.

Maintenance is always the obvious area that can be addressed. A comprehensive maintenance program involves every part of the fire alarm system's operating equipment and interacting environmental factors that affect that equipment. It starts with extensive discussions with the engineer/architect and fire alarm specialists to agree that the installed prescribed fire alarm system is of an adequate design standard in consideration of the total environment impacting factors.

It is essential that a fully programmed building specific maintenance plan be documented. This involves business decisions to ensure the practical viability of the proposal. In some cases, the evaluation may identify that a total upgrade to a much more effective system is warranted.

Often detectors are not replaced or tested regularly enough, in a planned way, and this may result in a manager not knowing which detectors have been replaced in the last couple of years. This is often very ineffective, particularly if the replacement plan has not included an upgrade to higher quality detectors.

The sensitivity of detectors can deteriorate over time. The older the detector the greater the chance of a systems fault occurring.

CFS volunteer fire-fighters often report that a faulty detector was attributed to the cause of the UFA. Careful consideration of the particular type of detectors being located in particular locations does greatly assist in reducing UFAs. In many cases, this scenario could have avoided an UFA from occurring.

Maintenance on its own will not always be enough; some automatic fire alarm systems will need to be upgraded in order to adequately address unsatisfactory performance.

Maintenance also includes regular staff training, and a proactive company policy on how to educate clients and the public about living with fire alarm systems.

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Q12.    Can a building owner/occupier alter or change any prescribed fire alarm system equipment?

The CFS has continuously recommended that owners/occupiers review the operation of the fire alarm system to ensure optimum results. The review may identify that certain changes or upgrade of the fire alarm system is recommended. CFS volunteer fire-fighters do not have the necessary technical knowledge to discuss any changes to an installed automatic fire alarm systems or its related components. All questions associated with that topic must be referred to the CFS Building Fire Safety Unit.

It is essential to remember that the prescribed fire alarm system has been installed in accordance with Local Authority/Certifier approval permits. Any proposed variation to the installed prescribed fire alarm system must be documented, and approval for any variations sought from the Local Authority/Certifier.

Formal approval is always required to ensure the integrity and purpose of the fire alarm system is maintained. Owners/occupiers are required to submit their proposed building variation to the Local Authority/Certifier, and request advice about those options or changes to the existing fire alarm system. The request must be forwarded in writing to CFS Building Fire Safety Unit.

It is not the responsibility of the CFS to nominate particular changes to a building's prescribed fire alarm system. It is the responsibility of the owners/occupiers to propose any desired changes and present these to the Local Authority/Certifier for approval. It may be important for owners/occupiers to be informed that where special fire services are involved, some endorsement by the CFS that the variation complies with required regulations may be required.

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Q13.    Do all building fire alarm systems need to be monitored?

No.  Many fire alarm systems installed within buildings are local systems only and do not require monitoring. Section E of the Building Code of Australia lists buildings that require monitoring. However, special circumstances may apply to certain buildings.

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Q14.    How does a building owner/occupier request that the CFS account for UFAs be waived?

If you believe that you have been charged for an unwanted false alarm that is unfair or beyond your control, you may download the "Application to Waive" form from the CFS website and request that the charge is waived.  The writer must outline the reasons why the CFS charge should be waived.  The Business Officer - Fees and Charges will consider the Application to Waive and if satisfied that the reasons of the request are valid, waive the charge.

For CFS to assess your application you must:

  • Lodge an Application to Waive within 30 days of the invoice date;
  • Include the reasons to waive and what has been done to ensure that false alarms will not reoccur (use an additional sheet if required);
  • Attach a copy of the CFS invoice(s) and evidence of the actions taken to remedy further false alarms (eg, invoice from alarm maintenance company);
  • Forward all documentation to the CFS address that appears at the bottom of the "Application to Waive" form.  Alternatively, forward by facsimile (08 8463 5510) or email charges@cfs.sa.gov.au.

All applications will be assessed and you will be notified of the outcome within 10 working days.

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Q15.    As the owner/occupier of a building with a fire alarm system, can I telephone the CFS and tell them not to send the fire appliance because it's an unwanted alarm?

Yes.  CFS volunteers appreciate a telephone call from the building manager to the fire communication centre with advice about the status of events associated with the fire alarm activation. The fire communication centre can then forward updated information to the responding fire crew while they are en route.

Information about the status of the emergency at the subject building allows the officer to more efficiently manage the mobilisation of resources dependant upon the specifics of the information received.

Responding CFS crews are obligated to continue to the scene and investigate the reason for the alarm activation.  This is due to the potential for maliciousness intended to delay CFS attendance, and the potential for incorrect assessment of the situation by the local manager.

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Q16.    Will the CFS charge for chargeable fire alarms because it is seeking increased revenue?

No.  The CFS attends a significant number of UFAs throughout South Australia over the course of a 12-month period. The CFS will commence charging for attendance UFAs due to the number of times the CFS has attended buildings where it was clear that fire alarm systems were not being maintained appropriately.

The CFS is providing information to assist owners/occupiers to reduce their potential chargeable alarm costs. It is safer and more cost effective for all parties that the CFS does not have to attend UFAs.

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Q17.    Why do I pay for chargeable UFAs when I already pay an Emergency Services Levy (ESL)?

All property owners within South Australia contribute funds via the ESL.  The purpose of the ESL is to provide emergency services to the people of South Australia. The structured fees are based on a historically based expectation of the level of demand, for example, if a particular type of property (due to its particular risk factors) were to become involved in fire, then that property would demand a level of CFS resources to be responded to that complex in order to manage the incident.

The dollar amount levied upon individual properties is based on size and type of property use. Clearly, where greater levels of risk demand greater levels of CFS resources, then a proportional ESL fee is set. These fee structures are provided in legislation.

The nominal fee for a chargeable UFA attendance is an incentive for the owner to reduce false alarms and is not based on the actual cost of turnout, which is substantially higher.

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Q18.    What is the responsibility of the owners/occupiers when the fire alarm operates:

  1. in relation to building occupants; and
  2. the fire alarm panel?

The responsibility of the owners/occupiers is to ensure that pre-planned emergency response procedures are enacted. The prime function of these emergency response evacuation procedures is to ensure the safe evacuation of the people in the complex.

The activation of an automatic fire alarm system will involve the person designated on the evacuation plan quickly attending the fire alarm panel to determine the location of the fire alarm activation. Further, the designated building warden closest to the indicated location of the fire will investigate the cause, and report to the building Chief Warden (individual Building Warden roles and functions may vary).

It is important that the alarm panel is not reset prior to the arrival of the fire service as fire crews will need to investigate the area to determine the exact cause of the activation.

Intentionally interfering with the fire alarm system can lead to being prosecuted under the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005.

Each building manager has a responsibility to develop evacuation plans that encompass the duties involved in the required roles and functions designated per Australian Standards, Building Fire Safety Regulations, and Schedule 5 of the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005.

These evacuation plans should be communicated, displayed, and practiced on a regular basis. Australian Standards specifies these requirements.

A duty of care for the people within a complex is expected of the owners/occupiers. Regular staff training in the roles and function of the designated roles and functions required to effectively conduct a building evacuation in an emergency is required by Australian Standards.

Some buildings require formal written evacuation plans, others do not. It is highly recommended that all owners/occupiers develop and implement evacuation plan procedures that can be exercised in the event of a range of emergencies.

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Q19.    Can I make changes to the fire alarm system?

Changes can be made to a prescribed automatic fire alarm system; however, any changes must be in accordance with relevant legislation. There are a range of people who may need to be advised about or approve changes to your fire alarm systems (Refer to Question 11). Your alarms maintenance contractor will be able to outline the process to you.  It is highly recommended that, in order to avoid unnecessary angst, relevant industry consultants are engaged to provide key advice in order to ensure compliance.

CFS operational fire-fighters do not have the necessary technical knowledge to discuss any changes to an installed automatic fire alarm systems or its related components. All questions associated with that topic must be referred to the CFS Building Fire Safety Unit.

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Q20.    The fees schedule refers to attendance charges being determined by risk classifications. What does this mean?

CFS operating procedures specify a level of response (numbers of appliances) to buildings according to their size, use and risk to life if involved in fire. There are 3 major risk categories: "A, B & C" risks. A descriptor of these classifications is in the table below.

Risk Categories

PROPERTY

A

  • All areas or individual buildings, four floors and above.
  • Oil and gas refineries and installations.
  • Special target risks involving very high hazard industrial, commercial or life risks.

B

  • Industrial buildings and complexes not specified in Category A3.
  • Large shopping and commercial centres and supermarkets (> 150sq mtrs).
  • Health Care Facilities, other than in Category A1.
  • Public buildings, grandstands, hotels, cinemas.

C

  • Residential Buildings.
  • Small shopping and commercial buildings.
  • Small industrial or public buildings in isolation < 150 sq mtrs.

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Q21.    How should owner/occupiers manage contractors working on premises fitted with an automatic fire alarm system?

When a workman is engaged to perform work in a building fitted with an automatic fire alarm system, it is recommended that the complex manager instigate precautions that ensure no unwanted alarms occur as a result of the workman's activities. The responsibilities of the contractor are established, as are the consequences of causing an unwanted alarm. The manager should establish the expectation upon the contractor to meet any consequential CFS charges invoiced to the property, if that is the policy of the business.  The CFS does not issue chargeable alarm invoices to the contractor.

The fire alarm zones in which work is being undertaken should be isolated while work is being undertaken. It is recommended that a person is tasked as a safety watch while the fire alarm zone is isolated. It is important that all workers are instructed about the consequences of working with fire alarm systems. Managers should establish awareness of the 'timed delay' feature of the Essential Safety Provisions (ESP) to ensure all contractors working in the building understand it.

Contractors should be met at the entry point and provided with a formal induction briefing per a prepared policy. Emphasis should be made of the importance of noting the time limitation for which the ESP isolates the system.

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Q22.    Has there been any demonstrated improvement in fire alarm system performance from buildings that have upgraded their fire alarm system; ie the upgrade has produced nil or minimal chargeable alarms?

The answer is yes. However, any building owner/occupier who does not adopt a holistic approach or seriously commit to reducing unwanted alarms may not quite achieve the desired result. The CFS has numerous examples of significant improvements in automatic fire alarm performance where owner/occupiers have acted upon professional advice.

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Q23.    What should an owner/occupier do to gain the co-operation of tenants and guests to ensure the number of unwanted alarms is minimised?

Firstly, the body corporate, owner/occupier should develop a policy of how any unwanted alarms are to be managed within the complex. This policy can be communicated with tenants and guests.

Additionally, brochures in multiple languages depicting desired messages can be communicated.

Less unwanted alarms creates an opportunity for safe evacuations when a fire alarm activates for the right reasons, reducing the complacency amongst the community. Appropriate alarm activations can lead to lives saved, whereas inappropriate automatic fire alarm system activations can lead to significant loss of life.

It is generally accepted that it is important to avoid the loss of life due to improperly operating fire alarm systems. This includes ensuring that complacency does not cause any additional disasters.

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Q24.    Should building owner/occupiers forward the cost of a chargeable alarm to the holiday-maker who burnt their toast?

It is not the role of the CFS to advocate to the body corporate or owner/occupier a particular policy approach. It seems appropriate and business-like to pre-emptively consider a policy position in the event of this scenario developing. The decision to forward CFS chargeable alarm accounts to a holiday-maker is a business choice of the body corporate or owner/occupier. The CFS does not support that practice.

This policy can be communicated with guests. Any incorrect statements made to the holidaymaker that reflects negatively upon the CFS as the organisation that caused the account to be sent to the holidaymaker, will be redressed firmly in an appropriate manner by the CFS. Staff can assist greatly by clearly communicating CFS expectations to tenants and holidaymakers. Importantly, where CFS crews identify this scenario, communication of the facts to allay any concerns should be promoted while in attendance.

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Q25.    Who would need to know about any changes to a building fire alarm system?

The people who may need to know about any changes to a prescribed fire alarm system include: Local Authority; Building Certifier; Bodies Corporate; owner/occupiers; building managers, staff; fire alarm technicians; the CFS; respective insurance companies; various tenants and occupants, and, where special fire services have been altered - the CFS Building Fire Safety Unit.

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Q26.    Can anyone other than the CFS monitor my building fire alarm system?

Current building requirements in the Building Code of Australia Specification E2.2A clause 7 requires all buildings that must be monitored are monitored by the relevant fire service.

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Q27.    Are CFS personnel required to reset/isolate the fire alarm panel while attending building fire alarm activations?

No. CFS Fire Officers will attempt to reset the fire alarm panel. It is the responsibility of the owner/occupier to ensure that the status of the fire alarm panel is operationally ready at all times.

CFS personnel are willing to assist all sections of the community, and welcome the opportunity to assist building owner/occupiers wherever possible. While attending fire alarm activations CFS volunteers have observed the following:

  • On some occasions on-site managers are not in attendance to reset the fire alarm panel;
  • On-site building representative staff do not always possess adequate knowledge about how to reset the fire alarm panel;
  • CFS recognise the benefit of having a fire alarm system operational rather than the fire alarm system not being operational;
  • CFS often reset the fire alarm system in the interest of building and occupant safety;
  • CFS, by their nature, seek to assist people wherever possible, and also desire to build positive relationships with all sections of the community in order to achieve outcomes that benefit all.

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Q28.    What is a CFS Officer looking to achieve while investigating a fire alarm activation?

The CFS Officer in charge of the attending operational fire-fighting crew is authorised to act on behalf of the CFS Chief Officer and ensure that the authority vested via the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 is applied. The CFS Officer will progressively investigate the matter and seek evidence of the cause of the call-out. The main aim of fire fighting crews responding is to establish the nature of the emergency and, if there is an emergency to save life and property.

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Q29.    Does the CFS provide any information about the cause of the fire alarm activation?

The CFS Officer will seek evidence of the cause of the automatic fire alarm activation. This investigation will involve attending the building fire alarm panel to confirm the location of the area, from which the call originated, and then inspect the actual location to confirm that people and property are safe. While at the point of origin of the call, the CFS Officer will seek evidence of the reason for the alarm activation. This investigation will be through observation of available evidence, and by interviewing people in attendance to determine the cause of the activation.

The CFS Officer will discuss with the building owners/occupiers on-site representative, the reason for the alarm activation. The CFS Officer will also complete the record of attendance in the fire alarm panel.

The attending CFS Officer will also complete a fire report, documenting all the available evidence.  This information is used to create accounts and for statistical purposes.

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Q30.    What are the fees for fire service attendance to for an unwanted false activation?

The schedule of fees will be available in the SA Government Gazette. Refer to Schedule 18 in the Fire and Emergency Services Regulations 2005 for the CFS cost detail.

Note: the fees listed in the government gazette do not include GST which must be added.

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Q31.    What is a primary alarm system?

A primary alarm system is normally the alarm system that monitors the building. This will normally be the smoke, thermal and other detectors connected to a main fire panel. It is this fire panel that will contain the communication equipment that transmits a signal to the fire service and can include fire sprinkler systems.

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Q32.    What is a secondary alarm system?

A secondary alarm system is normally a supplementary system that reports to the primary alarm system. This can be a fire sprinkler system or flow switches in a charged hydrant/hose reel system and may include low battery, monitored valves and fire pump run indication. 

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