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Valley fire officials fight false alarms

Thu., Feb. 19, 2009

Proposed ordinance will have teeth, smile

Like police, Spokane Valley firefighters are targeting false alarms that can jeopardize public safety – but they favor a kinder, gentler approach.

The Spokane Valley Fire Department is working on an ordinance for presentation to its commissioners and the Spokane Valley City Council, possibly this summer.

The city already has an ordinance to penalize bogus calls from automatic burglar alarms, but there is no ordinance for false fire alarms.

“It’s long overdue,” Fire Marshal Kevin Miller said. “Our runs have gone up 8 to 10 percent on average in the past four or five years and we’re tying up trucks on false alarms when they need to be available for other calls.”

Similar pressures drove Police Chief Rick Van Leuven to ask the City Council last week for stiffer penalties when automatic burglar alarms cry wolf. He recommended contracting with a company called Crywolf to generate fine notices automatically from the sheriff’s computer database.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, with whom the city contracts for police service, made a similar recommendation to county commissioners. The commissioners suggested Spokane Valley take the lead because the city generates more than half of the sheriff’s false alarms.

Receptive City Council members called for a formal proposal.

The City Council would have to approve any fire-alarm regulations proposed by fire commissioners, who have no legislative authority.

Miller said fire officials want to be “somewhat consistent” with the city’s burglar-alarm ordinance, but need a fire-alarm ordinance that smiles sometimes when it bares its teeth.

Unlike law enforcement, which is paid from city and county general funds, fire protection in Spokane Valley and unincorporated parts of Spokane County is provided by independent fire districts.

Many fire districts, including the Spokane Valley Fire Department, depend on the goodwill of voters to pass special levies.

“You want to be responsible with the public’s money, and we want to fine the people who are abusing the system but have a great understanding for the unintentional alarms,” Miller said. “Every year, we have to go to the voters, so you walk that line.”

He wants to see what other levy-dependent fire departments have done.

While many false burglar alarms are attributed to human error – employees often carelessly enter a building when an alarm system is active – fire alarms triggered by water-flow detectors in sprinkler systems can present more complicated challenges.

The system in the Walgreens store at the corner of Sprague and Sullivan is a good example. Installed in 2000, it’s a “pretty top-of-the-line” system that was driven bonkers by a Dec. 27 roof collapse, Miller said.

The system serves two other businesses in the same building. The roof collapsed on the Dollar Store in the middle of the building, closing the Dollar Store and knocking out fire sprinklers in Hancock Fabrics, but the alarm and sprinkler system continued to operate in the Walgreens store.

A little too well, though. Firefighters have been called to the store seven times since Jan. 1, including twice in one day last week.

Fire officials so far haven’t used their traditional method of speeding up repairs: ordering a fire watch in lieu of a required fire-protection system.

When a fire watch is ordered, businesses must have someone onsite 24 hours a day with a fire extinguisher and a telephone.

“That works for most of them,” Miller said. “That can be an incentive to the business owner to get things fixed.”

He said Hancock Fabrics is on fire watch, but struck a deal with the 24-hour Walgreens store to have someone watch the fabric store.

“The management there at Walgreens has bent over backward to help us, to try to get to the bottom of this,” Miller said.

But the bottom line is that “we are responding to their address,” he said.

“We want to do what’s best,” Miller said. “We think we need to have something that gives us a little more teeth to keep the trucks available for that true and real emergency.”

John Craig may be contacted at

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