Get the Word Out

Life safety strengthened with layered communications


On December 1, 1958, a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago killed 92 students and three nuns. A lasting image etched in memory is of Richard Scheidt, the firefighter who carried 10-year-old victim John Jajkowski from the school.

Scheidt died in April in Chicago at the age of 81. After the incident, he recalled how the fire was roaring through the building as he and 13 rescue squads (the city’s entire fleet) arrived. Scheidt and his team of firefighters broke a hole through a second floor wall to find a smoky classroom full of unconscious pupils at their desks and the rescue quickly turned into recovery.

That fire changed the codes in the city of Chicago forever. In fact, the city adopted it own construction standards, including a Fire Code.

Imagine if that scenario played out today. Educators would receive text messages of the fire and school administrators would be piping in via SMS specific evacuation procedures. Early warning detectors and visual and audible annunciators surely would have routed the students out. LED signs would direct occupants to safe areas of egress; English and Spanish voice warnings would assist as well. First responders would arrive with an accurate picture of where the occupants were and how to save as many as possible. Fewer lives would be lost, if any.

Mass notification and emergency communications have transformed the fire protection landscape into a proactive early warning solution. All this innovation is good, but it doesn’t make it any easier for the integrator to know what to install and why. However, the saving grace is that much of the new warning notification is digital and based on the Internet and we seem to be getting better at using that medium all the time.

Tim Cooney is the president and owner of Falcon Fire Alarm Systems Inc. in Summerville, S.C., and a Notifier distributor-installer. He’s been in the market for 18 years and is a NICET certified specialist. He knows that fire alarm integrators need to have engineering expertise and have to stay focused on the rapidly changing market.

Falcon Fire Alarm Systems serves the historical area of Charleston, S.C. One recent installations was at the U.S. Custom House in Charleston where technicians installed a Notifier ONYX NFS2-640 intelligent fire alarm control panel with eight-channel digital voice control. The system is integrated with energy management and elevator systems and also LED displays. The Custom House was built in the late 1800s and is home to South Carolina State Senator Jim Demint, Department of Homeland Security offices and the South Carolina State Port Authority.

Cooney has been involved with first responders and the local alarm association, all in an effort to make sure he can stay ahead of current and proposed changes. He has seen an increase in the number of fire systems integrated with mass notification and emergency communication and said the advent of digital propelled the category into popularity.

“We are seeing more notification systems integrate with access control. There’s just so much integration between systems and a trend toward voice evacuation in lieu of horns to direct occupants out safely. We are going to see more wireless mass communications emerging in the near future,” he added.

LED signs

Visual annunciation and notification continues to come on strong. In Washington, D.C., smart LEDs hang in each Metro commuter station. Visible from more than 100 feet away, the signage alerts passengers of delays or train status. As a train enters the boarding area, messages flash, accompanied by a strobe effect on the ground and an audible tone to alert hearing or sight-impaired riders.

On September 11, 2001, as smoke and noxious fumes filled the Metro tunnel from the fires at the Pentagon, the smart LEDs carried a special message to inform passengers and staff of the situation. Both pre-programmed and ad hoc messaging was supported across the networked LEDs and was delivered in real time to thousands of commuters. Officials learned the system of smart LEDs was one of the only passenger notification systems between Washington, D.C. and New York City available at that time.

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