Among the many improvements found in the latest edition of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code (NFPA 72-2010), one should be of particular interest to fire systems integrators: cellular technology is now permitted as a sole means for alarm communications. This welcome change allows the integrator to earn revenue from the alarm system's communications path without burdening the customer with the expenses and inconveniences of a landline.
Of course, change always brings with it some opposition and that means integrators must educate Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) on the aspects that most directly affect their businesses.
Recently, I wrote an article entitled, "Cellular as a Sole Communications Path for Fire (see SD&I's October 2010 issue, page 74)." It explains how using cellular as a sole communications path benefits both the end customer and integrator. Although the market offers just a few UL 864-listed products-such as Telguard's TG-7FS-savvy dealers are already leveraging this important code change.
What integrators are saying
"The benefit of cellular as the sole path is huge for the industry as a whole," said Alan Foreman, operations manager of Washington Alarm in Seattle. "To the end-user customer, it's transparent and it works like it's supposed to. They also like the cost savings from not having to install a backup line or landline. For us, the dealer, it's affordable and can be installed quickly."
You'll hear such praise from integrators everywhere: sole-path cellular indisputably helps the bottom line. As you can imagine, the challenge isn't in persuading customers to adopt-they do so readily because of savings and convenience. Rather, the challenge is in gaining regulatory approval.
Most often, resistance on the part of AHJs falls into three categories: awareness, applicability and reliability. Awareness and applicability are closely linked. Even if a jurisdiction is already using NFPA 72 2010, the sheer number of changes from the 2002 edition means that the sole-path allowance clause, which is hidden in the Appendix under General Communications, can easily be overlooked. As such, integrators must understand the code well enough to help an AHJ locate and correctly interpret the sole-path clause. Just such a "code walkthrough" can be found in the additional content for this story on the SD&I archives at www.securityinfowatch.com.
For jurisdictions still operating under the 2002 edition, cellular is mentioned only as a suitable secondary path for a DACT. But integrators in these jurisdictions shouldn't give up hope. The 2002 edition clearly allows the concept of Equivalency (Section 1.5) and under Equivalency cellular can be approved as a sole path. This is the case because cellular is deemed equal to DACT and private radio by its inclusion in the newer, more recently vetted 2010 edition.
However, even if an informed and prepared integrator convinces the AHJ of cellular's applicability, he or she still must defend its reliability. Questioning the reliability of the cellular network generally means questioning the durability of the hardware (e.g., towers), the robustness of the software (e.g., message transmission) and the presence of an adequate backup path.
Cellular path redundancy
The usual suspect is the cell tower. Many people assume a cellular device communicates with only one cell tower and that the tower represents a potential point of failure. This is not true. Just like a point-to-multipoint mesh-networking product, a cellular device can also communicate with multiple towers offering path redundancy. In the rare case that the primary tower is taken down for any reason, communications are immediately resumed through the next visible tower. The challenge is proving that multiple cell towers are actually in range of the installed location. Some manufacturers can indicate that multiple towers are visible through their equipment's LEDs, which should ease the AHJ's concerns on an installation-by-installation basis.