For nearly a decade, the security industry has been using the term "convergence" to describe the merging spheres of physical security and IT infrastructure and systems. The fire alarm industry has until recently remained relatively untouched by convergence.
Code changes to the 2007 National Fire Protection Association's National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72) have addressed this issue, and manufacturers are beginning to introduce products that can comply with NFPA 72's alternative means of communication.
In the last 20-plus years the primary means of communicating the status of a fire alarm system to a receiving station has been a POTS (plain old telephone system) line with the following approved means for secondary notification:
- A second phone line
- Cellular telephone connection
- One-way radio system
- One-way private radio alarm system
- Private microwave radio system
- Two-way RF multiplex system
The de facto standard in much of the U.S. has been to use POTS lines for both primary and secondary notification. In many jurisdictions this has come to mean two "dedicated" POTS lines.
There has been ample confusion about whether the lines need to be dedicated. NFPA 72 basically makes the following requirements.
- The lines are under the control of the subscriber.
- The fire alarm system has the ability to seize the POTS line ahead of other functions on the line.
- Dial tone is immediately available when going off-hook.
A good example of whether the lines should be dedicated is found in a multi-tenant building application.
In the first variation of the example, the owner of the building has a management office in the building and they have two POTS lines for voice and fax service, thus the lines are under the control of the subscriber. These two lines can be used for fire system communications as shown in Illustration 1 and where the lines are configured to meet requirements 2 and 3 above.
Illustration 1: Standard 2-Line POTS/DACT configuration
In the second variation of the example, the building owner does not have offices in the subject property and the building owner is furnishing the monitoring of the fire alarm system. In this case, two dedicated POTS lines would be required for the system monitoring.
When the building is not owner-occupied, the owner will have to furnish the IP connectivity, but often there are other systems such as building, elevator and lighting controls which often can make use of the IP connection for remote programming and diagnostics.
There are two significant benefits to the use of IP communicators:
- Reduction in operating costs
- Remote diagnostics
Simply put, the use of IP communicators can save the system owner significant expense, especially when they have multiple sites that require monitoring.
Under this example, the investment capital is paid back from the operating budget, which means a recovery time of just over a year. It is quite powerful for schools and other entities to be able to use their operational budget to acquire in one year of capital something that literally eliminates the operational costs the next year.
Figure 1: IP communicator ROI
So, the basic math is this; spend $400 over the annual operating costs for the phone lines to save $9,600 in each year following the upgrade. That is not new math; it is easy math for any school or entity that is looking to create savings in its operating budget.
When the IP communicator is integrated into the FACP and it has a native Web server associated with it, true remote diagnostics become available to the system owner. While this is difficult to quantify, there can be potential savings on service calls to the owner if basic trouble conditions can be determined remotely and the owner instructed in basic measures to rectify the issue. This has an opportunity gain for the systems integrator, as they can charge for the service consultation, but not have a technician tied up for drive time, especially to remote locations or across highly congested traffic areas.
When using remote diagnostics, there may have to be a higher degree of coordination for allowing the systems service provider access through firewalls and to ensure that an open door is not left into other aspects of the owner's IT system.
While the date has not yet been verified, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has begun the discussion to determine when POTS will no longer be a valid form of communication in the U.S. Some dates have been as early as 2014 in recent reports.
The demise of POTS
With new construction in some service areas, it is becoming more difficult to have POTS lines installed. With the proliferation of VOIP for standard business phone use, the handwriting is on the wall; POTS will end in the foreseeable future.
IP fire alarm communicators will save the system owner money by sparing them the costs of the POTS lines and by potential savings in service calls. There is an advantage to the system service provider in that they can be more responsive and flexible in their ability to remotely diagnose system issues for the owner.
This will not be without its issues for the fire systems service provider. They will be required to have a higher degree of coordination to ensure the IP service is available when needed for acceptance testing. These providers will need to increase their level of understanding of IT issues pertaining to firewall security and practices and to ensure that the remote connection is secure from tampering. Finally, they will need to be conversant in working with the owner to determine the level of power backup required for the IT components.
While there is a learning curve required for owners and systems providers, ultimately IP fire alarm communicators will be a win-win for all parties.
IP Fire Communicator
- Cost savings
- Remote diagnostics
- Greater coordination required
- Understand IT standards and practices
- Power backup for IT components
Dave Miller, SET is a principal with and leads the Fire/Life Safety practice for True System Designers Ltd. (www.trusys.com). Dave has over 20 years of experience in a wide variety of fire/life safety applications and provides NICET Fire Alarm exam preparation courses throughout the U.S. He is a regular contributor to the TRUSYS Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-537-9200.