Bosch rethinks its fire business

Up until ISC West, Bosch Security Systems North America's fire business had primarily been focused on small conventional systems. They were known for working with companies that were primarily burglar alarm companies who also installed small fire systems, and their product line included conventional panels, some multiplex equipment and lots of detectors, stations and notification devices.

Now, according to Charles Davis, Bosch's product marketing manager for the company's U.S. fire business, the company is changing its strategy.

At the ISC West 2009 show in Las Vegas, Bosch launched its FPA-1000-UL, a UL-listed analog addressable fire alarm systems panel. It's the company's first true addressable panel (previous U.S. offering from Bosch had expansion modules to add addressable lines, but weren't addressable panels in their entirety). The 1000 panel has two SLCs which currently accommodates up to 254 points; the company plans to release an upgrade later this summer which would double the number of points. It even plans for the future with a hazardous gas notification circuit -- a feature which Bosch added to accomodate for future carbon monoxide detection requirements.

"For the most part, the strategy had been smaller panels," explained Davis.

"The strategy going forward is going to be geared toward building systems solutions. We're making a huge investment in terms of R&D. This panel is the first of that infrastructure going forward."

The panel, besides being addressable, is also Web-connected to allow remote activity to the panel. That allows for remote service checks by the fire systems dealer. It can allow the tech to be on-site for final installation checks while the dealer's fire system engineer is at the home office working on the panel's programming.

Of course, Davis notes that the Web-connected nature of many of today's panels has raised questions by AHJ inspectors who want to ensure that it doesn't defeat the purpose of a fire panel.

"There are going to be AHJs that are concerned about the Web connection," explained Davis. "They are concerned about people remotely changing the panel, silencing the system, or shutting it down without being on site. And that's a big no-no. To prevent that, we have put rules in the programming to force user to be at the panel for certain activities. There are also several layers of security to prevent hacking."

With this more robust FPA-1000-UL panel in the Bosch line, Davis says it is the first step for the company to begin producing a line of networkable panels to allow Bosch systems to be used for ever-larger facilities. Voice notification (as used in high-rise buildings) also will be a future addition to this product line, said Davis.

Along with those advanced features and the strategy for a full product line to serve larger and larger buildings with fire panels, Bosch is also seeking to expand its reseller channel. While the company clearly still plans to support its dealers who are installing small fire systems (and to help them grow into the larger fire systems market), Davis said he is also establishing relationships with the dedicated fire protection and fire alarm systems installing companies.

"If you look at the industry as a whole, the U.S. market is by far the largest fire alarm market. When you look at the competition in the marketplace, there are four key manufacturer players that make up more than 70 percent of the market. In terms of the channel, there is the burglar alarm industry that does some work in the fire space, and then there is the dedicated fire alarm protection industry. Bosch has always focused on the burglar alarm side of the channel, which is primarily the lower-end [of the fire installing channel]. They never really had something to take to the [dedicated] fire alarm industry. This portfolio that starts with the FPA-1000 is going to give us that opportunity."

"Bosch has a very successful fire alarm business in Europe and Asia," Davis continued. "But the product for Europe and Asia doesn't fit for the U.S. market. Bosch has made a strategy and is investing in a dedicated portfolio for the U.S. market. This [UL-listed] portfolio will also be able to be used in South America, the Middle East and parts of Thailand [due to reciprocal recognition of the UL requirements]."

And even as Davis considers Bosch's U.S. fire systems business strategy, as a former technician, installer and engineer who has worked for companies like EST, Siemens Building Technologies, McDaniel Fire and Guardian Alarm, Davis gives a strategy tip for companies to grow their own businesses:

"I tell them to think about growing their fire business not just through installations but through service contracts, because there are code requirements for service they can pursue."