Case Study: An historic fire alarm upgrade

In 2003, the blaze that traveled through a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., where 100 people lost their lives may have a silver lining. Since that time, Rhode Island fire officials and lawmakers worked to tighten the state's fire protection laws.

Notable among Rhode Island's recent regulation changes is the elimination of the grandfather clause that permitted an existing facility to remain out of compliance with current laws, despite potentially serious code infractions. The aim of Rhode Island lawmakers and fire protection officials is a reduction in the likelihood of a repeat fire tragedy.

Among the many facilities across the state that had to bring their buildings up to code is the Rhode Island Statehouse, located in Providence. Constructed between 1895 and 1904, the Statehouse is listed with the National Register of Historic Places. The fire alarm system upgrade needed approval from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission.

Installation challenges

In previous years, when network technology was prevalent in fire alarm systems, the physical impact of such a sizeable installation on an historic facility was enormous. Steve Cunha, senior division manager, Cintas Fire Protection of Pawtucket, R.I., said that the Statehouse's white marble walls and other architectural characteristics made wire installation difficult. The electricians' knowledge of the facility and networking capability of the E3 Series fire alarm system made it possible to turn what seemed a difficult installation into a success story-but the job was not without its challenges.

The E3 Series system supports up to 25,000 devices over 64 nodes. It's the first system of its kind to offer complete integration using a single twisted-pair or fiber-optic cable. Cunha said the E3 Series is attractive due to its two-wire data bus configuration, which offered a reduction in man-hours during installation.

Unlike the conventional systems of the past, the E3 Series does not require hundreds of large gauge conductors. Instead, the network-based technology, which distinguishes the Gamewell-FCI E3 Series, kept the number and size of conductors to a minimum. This aided installation of both horizontal and vertical riser cables throughout the structure.

"With most other systems you would have to run a larger riser for network controls, audio, and live paging," Cunha said. "With the E3 system you can run all of this across the same pair of wires, reducing both conduit size and the amount of copper wire used."

Initially there were 200 fire alarm devices in place throughout the Statehouse. Part of the main challenge facing Cintas Fire Protection involved the installation of new fire pulls, but additionally the notification appliance circuit devices proved difficult as well.

"This was a difficult part of the project," Cunha said. "The Statehouse's previous system was exempt, given its historical status. Those exemptions went away when Rhode Island adopted the new fire code." The elimination of the grandfather clause forced the Statehouse to install a new fire alarm system.

Thomas Wright, assistant director for special projects at the Statehouse, said the Statehouse now has more than 800 fire alarm devices.

Even though the two-wire data bus inherent in the E3 Series system reduces the necessary number of conductors throughout the facility, running these wires still proved a challenge for the electrical contractor. The contractor chose to run the wires in chases rather than running exposed conduit.

In the end, Wright and the rest of the advisers at the Statehouse were able to accomplish their objective: Install a state-of-the-art fire alarm system while maintaining the status quo as one of Rhode Island's treasured historical buildings.

The E3 system includes analog-addressable smoke and heat detection, intelligent projected beam detectors, addressable manual pulls, and an emergency alarm/communications system.

The E3 Series system features a high-speed data network called ARCnet over which control data, sensor data, and audio communication travels.

The Statehouse's ARCnet data connection has two signaling loop circuit (SLC) controller boards that contain a 32-bit reduced instruction set computer processor.

Each intelligent loop interface board provides two SLCs for a total of four. Each SLC has a potential capacity of 159 addressable detectors and 159 addressable modules.

To ensure E3 series operation the same intelligent dual-SLC/NAC processor board offers a number of relay outputs, such as alarm, supervisory, and system trouble.

Information provided by Gamewell-FCI, Northford, Conn.


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