ESSEX firefighters responded to more than 5,000 false alarms in a year, including more than 150 from malicious hoaxers putting lives in "serious danger".

Home Office figures shows more than a third of all incidents attended by Essex County Fire and Rescue in the year to September 2020 stemmed from false alarms.

Most were raised by people with good intentions.

Of the rest, 43 per cent were caused by faulty equipment – such as smoke alarms – or their accidental activation, while 175 'malicious' incidents were linked to hoax calls or alarms being set off where there was no fire.

The National Fire Chiefs Council said false alarms happened “approximately every two minutes” across England and cost services thousands of hours of lost productivity – “time that could be spent on other vital, and often life-saving activities”.

In Essex, 39 per cent of all calls attended over 12 months were false alarms, while more than 226,000 were logged nationally, including more than 5,500 malicious incidents.

NFCC chair Roy Wilsher described the figures as "shocking" and said malicious callers could prevent crews from attending incidents where people were in serious danger.

He said: “People making these reckless calls need to ask themselves what would happen if a member of their family needed emergency assistance and firefighters were attending a malicious call.

“We need to see this change.”

A Home Office spokesman warned hoaxers they could face prosecution, adding: "Malicious false alarms take our firefighters away from front line work, protecting our communities and potentially saving lives.

"They can amount to a criminal offence and we support the prosecution of these incidents where appropriate."

Over the course of ten years, the number of false calls has dropped by more than a fifth but in 2020 they still represented more than 40 per cent of all incidents attended by 45 fire services, while actual fires accounted for just 28 per cent.

Almost two-thirds were due to fire alarms or related equipment malfunctioning or being accidentally set off, while almost a third were raised by people who genuinely thought there was an emergency.

'Burnt toast' or general cooking mishaps were behind almost a quarter of all false alarms, with more than 32,000 attributed to faulty smoke alarms and 177, bizarrely, linked to animals.

The Home Office said fire prevention was "core business" for every service and officers used experience and local intelligence to decide what interventions would best prevent and reduce the risk of fire in their communities.

A number of fire brigades have introduced charging policies in an effort to recover the costs of attending persistent false alarms at hotspots such as hospitals, student halls of residence and airports.

Charges, which differ from service to service, are usually restricted to non-residential facilities and can cost repeat offenders hundreds of pounds for a call-out.