False alarms remain problem for EFRS

False alarms are once again causing big headaches for the Estevan Fire Rescue Service.

In an interview last week, Chief Ron Tocker said they have again been plagued by a number of false alarms, adding that they are beginning to a take a toll on the volunteer members of the department.

Tocker first went public with his concerns in October and noted that after his public appeal the number of false alarms decreased significantly. However, once 2014 hit Tocker said the number of false alarms spiked again.

The recent spate of alarms has prompted both Tocker and the City of Estevan to take action. Tocker is again appealing to the public to ensure they are careful when cooking and are fully up to speed on all aspects of their alarm system.

"The biggest cause is unattended cooking," he said. "We had another one last night and one the evening before that.

"The second issue is premature dispatch. The monitoring agencies are getting the alarm signal and then dispatching us instantly."

Tocker said instantly contacting the fire department is not how the system is supposed to work. He noted the standard procedure is for the agency to receive the alarm and then call the house in question to see if emergency services are needed.

"(The monitoring agencies) are playing on our good faith. They know we are not going to say 'no we're not coming.' They are dispatching us first, then they are calling the homeowner. The homeowner says 'I just burnt my toast' so the (agency) calls the police service back and says cancel, but it's too late. We are already on our way."

Tocker said if homeowners run into a case similar to the one he described, they have to contact their alarm company and instruct them to follow the correct procedures.

He also noted the third major cause of false alarms is people forgetting their password when they are contacted by the monitoring agency or forgetting to answer the phone when the agency calls.

"We are right back to where we were," Tocker said.

Along with educating the public about the proper use of their alarm systems, Tocker said he also wants to inform residents about the toll this situation is taking on the department.

Financially, he estimates that each false alarm costs $300.

"With 90 some calls, that is beating my budget up completely just on unwarranted false alarms," he said.

The human cost is also significant. Tocker said when a firefighter responds to an unnecessary call during the day, he is leaving his job for up to an hour at a time. However, many of the calls are coming after 5 o'clock when the firefighters are attempting to spend time with their families. Although they haven't lost any members because of the problem, Tocker said he is worried that the patience of business owners who employ firefighters is wearing thin.

While Tocker hopes that education will get the attention of residents, the City is taking more punitive steps.

At the Feb. 24 regular meeting of council they passed a motion to increase the penalty fee for false alarms.

Beginning April 1, the fee for a first unwarranted false alarm will be $300. The fee for a second alarm will be $325 while a third alarm within the same 12-month period will be $350. Any further false alarms within that 12-month timeframe will remain $350.

Tocker said the hike is not intended to be a revenue source for the city adding they are only looking to cover their own costs.

"We can't consistently lose money and still maintain the fire department," added city clerk Judy Pilloud.

As one would expect, the fee has not been popular with homeowners who have been presented with an invoice. But Tocker said it's unfair for the taxpayers of Estevan to subsidize people who are abusing the system.

"I'm sure if you knock on the neighbours door and say 'would you pay for that guy's false alarm' he's going to say no."

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