Getting the Word Out

Remember when we were kids and heard the fire alarm bell in school? On cue, we lined up in an orderly manner and dutifully marched out of the classroom single file, no talking, and keep your hands to yourself. How times have changed!
Yesterday’s fire alarm bell will not meet today’s requirements for in-building Emergency Communications Systems (ECS). One big difference between the in-building notification systems of today and yesterday is the need to notify people about more than just fire. A mass notification system must articulate emergency information with voice instructions quickly enough to help people make life-saving decisions. Today’s more stringent codes call for hardened, dedicated alerting devices installed in buildings that inform with the kind of actionable information that makes a difference.

Various industry and government groups such as The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA) and the Department of Defense have written codes to raise the bar in the field of emergency communications.

Facilities and emergency managers who aspire to comply with new standards are presented a clear choice: either upgrade the fire alarm system or implement an independent ECS. The new code from NFPA allows for both approaches, and unless otherwise mandated by law, the choice is voluntary. The core issue is spelled out in the 2010 edition of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code Handbook (NFPA-72 2010):

24.3.3* Non-required (Voluntary) Emergency Communications Systems

An installation of an ECS is voluntary when the owner decides that a system is needed to meet the fire safety or emergency response plan for the occupancy. Although there is no building code or NFPA 101 Life Safety Code requirement for the system, the designer and the installer of an ECS must understand the owner’s goals and objectives and the system’s intended use.

Challenges in Upgrading Fire Alarm Systems

Let’s look at the upgrade path. One of the problems created by technological progress is that retrofitting old fire alarm systems to meet new codes is not fast, easy or cheap. Many buildings have fire alarm systems that date back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s and do not support voice evacuation technology.

“This is not a simple plug-and-play replacement,” says Andy Flowers, Business Manager for Cam Dex Security Corp. Founded in 1957, the integrator firm has years of experience in the design, assembly, testing, installation and maintenance of integrated security systems. “If you have multiple buildings with fire alarm systems installed by multiple vendors over the years, basically you are starting over. While the salesman may say you need a few speakers, in reality they will need to pull the panels off the walls and replace devices on the notification side. This means adding amps and speakers which means more power and new wiring.”

In many cases, existing systems are non-addressable, zoned systems having little remaining expansion capability. Interconnecting two systems with the goal of having them operate as one voice evacuation system can cause more than a few headaches.

Flowers estimates that only about 5 percent of all fire alarms systems have voice evacuation equipment that meets the new 2010 code. If installed before 2000, a fire alarm system will likely not comply with the current detector placement, audibility and visual requirements of the NFPA Code. Many systems installed prior to 1990 may not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Pull stations may have to be lowered and strobe lights may have to be added for ADA compliance. Upgrading a fire alarm system may force upgrading the entire building to meet ADA standards.

As a rule of thumb, the cost of upgrading is essentially the same as installing a new system.

“You have to re-cable, disconnect old devices, install new devices and then install new panels that support the voice and intelligibility requirements,” Flowers explains. “A typical building that would cost $50,000 for a non-voice system would cost $50,000 to retrofit with voice evacuation technology.”
Fire panels can run from $5,000 to $50,000 depending on how many amplifiers and speakers must be supported.

The Precision Notification Path

The good news about meeting new code requirements is that they only apply to new construction in locales where the planning commission has adopted NFPA-72 2010. In other words, you are not obligated, unless mandated by law, to outfit your buildings with voice evacuation fire alarm systems. Therefore, if you intend to improve your emergency notification efforts, it is worth exploring an investment in an independent precision notification system.

“Independent ECS systems are a great solution,” Flowers says. “They have the same goals and intent of NFPA-72, but you can get there without being dragged down by the codification.”

The primary advantage of an independent ECS is that it can be layered in with an existing fire alarm system without having to touch any of the fire alarm infrastructure, freeing end-users from the burden and cost of compliance. As a result, these systems are less costly to install and often provide greater intelligence than a typical fire alarm system. Consider the following benefits:

• Intelligence. Command center software for a precision notification system enables end-users to collect, store and disseminate emergency information from a central location.

• Integration. The right software serves as a platform to integrate multiple notification efforts. This is where video surveillance, IP phones, text/cell calling, outdoor sirens and other vertical systems can be consolidated into one system, enabling a “one-button-to-press” approach to emergency notification.

• Redundancy. Ask yourself what happens to your emergency notification when phone power and Internet go down? Redundancy in communications and power are critical.

• Cost. Typically, voice-capable ECS devices cost from $800 to $1,500 including installation. Shop around to compare features and functionality. But insist on voice. NFPA has it right that voice makes all the difference.

In the end, we always hope that new standards and codes for emergency communications will raise the bar for everyone, making the world a safer place. But the fact is that it takes a long time for the effects of a new code to be seen in the street. Rather than wait, there is much that can be done to take a step forward without shouldering the time and expense of meeting a new directive.

Timothy Means is the Director of Product Management and a co-founder of Metis Secure Solutions (www.metissecure.com), a developer of next generation emergency notification solutions for higher education, commercial and government organizations.

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