Choosing school control panel features-simple as a,b,c

Within our parents' lifetimes, we've moved from fire alarm control panels (FACPs) using simple electrical relays to today's microprocessor-based units, able to integrate thousands of inputs.

To put this all in context, keep in mind that in 1959 the Integrated Circuit (IC) was invented. The first modern computer was the ENIAC, which weighed 30 tons. The ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors and 10,000 capacitors. All its processing was replaced with one small IC chip and microprocessors have been evolving ever since. Technology has driven our industry for the last 50 years. Did you realize that the cordless hand tools we use today to install fire alarm systems were invented in 1961? The ubiquitous LED was invented in 1962. The first residential smoke alarm wasn't invented until 1969 which was one year before engineers at Corning made a glass fiber that transmitted light well enough to be used for communication. The cell phone came along in 1973 but the CCD camera wasn't produced until 1980. Wireless networking (Wi-Fi) wasn't even available until 2002.

Today's fire alarm control panels use all of these technologies. Fire alarm control panels commonly send and receive digital signals and may be networked using fiber optic cables as well as copper wiring. For the purposes of this article and the focus on the education market, let's look at the ways we use fire alarm technology today to protect two typical school sites.

Elementary in action

The first example is a single story elementary school. In this example, initiation will be straight-forward with a conventional fire alarm control panel performing most of the high tech work. For other than a one-room school building, a manual fire alarm system is required for Educational (E) occupancies by virtually all building codes. Like most schools, our building is not equipped with sprinklers, therefore a single smoke detector must be used to protect the only fire alarm control unit that is at the heart of this school's fire alarm system. The electronics used in this detector were designed to help discriminate between spurious false signals and actual smoke. However, the FACP itself will employ its own microprocessor power to perform an alarm verification of the alarm signals from this detector. The FACP may also contain circuitry to keep track of dust/dirt buildup in the smoke detector and send a signal when cleaning is needed. Since there is no sleeping allowed in schools (not to say it doesn't happen), there is no requirement for additional smoke detection in any other rooms or spaces, unless coats are hung in the hallways on hooks.

Our school is a new facility and will use metal lockers in the halls for coat storage. For notification, the temporal-three signal, using horns will be deployed because the sound from the horns will be different from the bell sound traditionally used for classroom changes. Strobes will be installed in the hallways, restrooms, locker rooms, library, gym, cafeteria, office areas and other common use spaces. Strobes could also be added to supplement the horns in noisy areas like woodworking shops. The latest FACPs now provide synchronization protocols for strobe lights from various manufacturers, making add-on modules unnecessary. The public address (PA) system is permitted to serve as the source for other emergency announcements such as tornado warnings and security threats.

Due to the declining use of telephone wires, our school has elected to use a digital cellular radio system for reporting all signals to a remote supervising station monitoring service. Since microprocessor power is ample with today's electronics, the FACP may also be used to monitor other inputs for response by other emergency forces, like the police. Therefore, our control panel could be a commercially listed combination fire-security panel. Door contacts are identical in function as manual pulls, and motion detectors employee electronics similar to smoke detectors. A slight change in the programming of the FACP would cause an additional local output causing a different signal to be transmitted to the monitoring station. Two intelligent keypads, with the red one dedicated to the fire alarm functions, would be included. The school may also use the radio for reporting security signals since the FACP was designed to give fire priority.

Upper education plan

Since the school fire system consists of manual pulls, one smoke detector and a couple dozen horns and strobes, the security protection would also be simple and consist of a half dozen door contacts and a dozen PIRs. If security wasn't included in this project, then a six- or eight-zone conventional panel would be easy to install, use and maintain. An economical elementary school system can be as easy as A,B,C.

For our second school, we will look at a college branch campus with three buildings, all located on the same block. To begin, colleges and universities are not Educational (E) occupancies, they are Business (B) occupancies and are not always required to have fire alarm systems. Any Business occupancy (without healthcare operations) requires a fire alarm system only when the combined occupant load is 500 or greater, or more than 100 persons are above or below the exit discharge level; so our school will need a fire alarm system due to its size. In our college example, initiation will not be as straight-forward as in the elementary school; however, the modern fire alarm control panel will still be performing most of the high tech work.

The college has elected to install manual and automatic devices and will need an addressable system that has network capability. Since our system will be installed for emergency notification of all types, an addressable fire alarm control panel, with its flexible programming, will be used as the foundation for all emergency functions. This way, we'll be able to bypass the smoke detectors in the auditorium whenever performances using theatrical smoke are present, without compromising the remainder of devices on that zone.

Addressable output relays may be tied into a video surveillance system to cause specific cameras to be called-up nearest the point of alarm initiation. These security surveillance cameras can also be a supplemental part of the fire alarm system if they are listed for video smoke detection. Their images may be sent over the fiber optic network to a constantly attended location for verification and remote alarm activation. Video image smoke detection cameras may also have their normally open (NO) contacts wired as any conventional automatic detection device and initiate the alarm themselves.

Of course each building must have independent fire alarm notification, yet still be capable of emergency announcements pertaining to all three buildings. For our purposes, we will be using an addressable FACP and Emergency Voice Alarm Communication (EVAC) panel. Using an addressable system allows inputs from all three building to be assigned outputs for both selective and wide-area notification. If the main building was always open (and the FACP controls available) when the two smaller buildings were open, then the two smaller buildings could be treated as paging zones as if they were all one building. If they had separate hours and uses, then they may have their own EVAC panels (or distributed audio) with their own microphones and building specific messages. It would be possible to announce fire alarm, weather alerts, security lockdown and other emergency messages from any of the three buildings. By using distributed audio, each building would have its own microphone for local control and still allow other messages from a central location in the main building (or from the main campus) to override any announcements made from within each building. The Internet or a local fiber optic network connection may be used to transmit live messages or initiate pre-recorded digital messages to one or more buildings or even to specific paging zones. The EVAC speakers could be used to produce warning tones as well as voice messages. This arrangement would allow for campus-wide weather warnings using tones to be sent over outdoor speakers since voice messages may not be easily understood when they compete to be heard over high winds and driving rain.

Having the ability to communicate between networked panels allows for more flexible installations in larger facilities with multiple buildings containing several occupancies in different spaces. While the college system may not be as simple as learning the alphabet, it needn't be as difficult as Chinese algebra either. When starting a project of this scope, evaluate one fire alarm feature or safety function at a time for each building. After you and the stakeholders decide what is needed, as well as where, when and by whom, the equipment can be selected that best fits the project.

By educating yourself on all the options available, and presenting to the decision makers your Good, Better and Best packages, you will provide them a host of opportunities to choose from whereby they will be able to better protect their students and visitors. Commercial customers rely on you to tell them about the new, technologically advanced electronic life-safety equipment available for their buildings. Conveying these systems' ease of use to the end-user, especially those making purchasing decisions for public buildings, could culminate in a spectacular sale and a showpiece system that will be on public display for years to come. Do your homework and maybe you'll wind up with an A+ sale, a long-term customer and ongoing referrals.

This example illustrates the typical installation described in the story which may be suitable for a college campus setting versus an elementary school protected premises configuration. Table courtesy of Greg Kessinger

Greg Kessinger SET, CFPS is SD&I's longtime resident fire expert and regular contributor to the magazine. Reach him at