Conventional fire market remains strong

Recently, there appears to have been a resurgence of conventional fire alarm technology, with a variety of manufacturers releasing updated versions of their conventional product lines last year. Frost & Sullivan's 2005 North American Fire Alarm Equipment Market report even predicts annual revenues for conventional fire alarm panels to hit more than $131 million in 2010 - a $1.6 million increase over revenue forecasts for 2000.

So if the market for basic, conventional fire equipment remains healthy, has demand for new fire system technology really changed? Taking into account the industry's stringent code requirements and lengthy equipment approvals processes, has the market become passive in its expectations for fresh innovations?

Today's Conventional Offerings

Current-day conventional fire systems still only identify with zones of devices. Yet cost, ease of installation and some interesting technological advances continue to make these systems a viable solution for small spaces.

According to Dirk von Richthofen, director of engineering for Fire-Lite Alarms, many updates made to their conventional line came as requests from installers via a "product improvement form" posted on their website, "For us, it was the customers that really drove us to modify our conventional panels. LCD text displays with menus identical to those of our other panels now make the programming of panels much easier for these installers."

Freeze warnings issued by the panel to a central station, indicating abnormally low temperatures, and more intelligent detection devices are two additional innovations claims von Richthofen, "Some conventional detectors now monitor levels of dirt within the device. Up to recently, this was something only addressable detectors could do. So to avoid false alarms, these devices can send out a warning that a detector within a certain zone needs to be cleaned."

With conventional fire systems having been around for decades, many long-time installers have become comfortable primarily utilizing this technology. Given the cost of conventional devices are around half those of addressable, end users also tend to lean toward these cost-conscious systems.

If codes allow and conventional component costs remain substantially lower than addressable, one can assume the market for these more simplistic systems will stay strong. Yet the demand for more intelligent, integrated systems, protecting larger structures and campus-like environments, has only "fueled the fire" for new technology.

Technology Drivers

The Internet and cellular phones are two major communications sources that have stimulated society's desire for more constant information. These same drivers apply to the world of fire alarms.

The presence of an Internet line in the large majority of commercial buildings has provided an alternative way for virtually any fire system to communicate with a central station. The avoidance of costly phone lines while offering constant supervision of the system has made Internet reporting one of the hottest trends in fire.

Cellular technology has also begun to affect fire panel design. "Soon these sophisticated systems will be able to communicate over your typical cellular broadband network," says von Richthofen, adding, "The push in the cell phone or iPod industries to make lower voltage parts that use less energy and provide longer battery life has caused us to make these same changes to our fire panel batteries as well."

In terms of better communication, the fire industry as a whole continues to demand more. We're talking about access to faster, more thorough information for first responders and security personnel, as well as for building maintenance and owners. New products such as PC workstations, and now even wireless PC tablets, all monitoring multiple systems on a campus or large network situation are becoming highly sought after products by these users.

Gamewell-FCI's vice president of engineering, Mario Casamassima, contends an increased emphasis is also being put on designing more intelligent analog addressable system interfaces.

"There's a greater demand for the system interface to provide more information about a particular emergency event, allowing for a more prepared and faster response. The additional information provided by these intelligent systems enable them to do more preventative maintenance too," says Casamassima.

When considering the large mass of equipment, plus installation and maintenance time that goes into protecting a large facility or multi-building complex, one has to wonder about the integration possibilities with other building controls. The resources necessary today to monitor just security, lighting and fire systems for example, can be astronomical.

In the 2005 North American Fire Alarm Equipment Market report by Frost & Sullivan, researchers stated that, "Integration of fire alarm panels with other building safety systems is a growing trend. Besides integration of fire and security systems, the market is also witnessing integration of fire with building management systems as concerns of ensuring priority and integrity of fire alarm systems have been addressed."

And while integration makes sense, many electrical codes do not yet support the integration of these various systems. And with manufactures of these varying products working independently, the technology to integrate is often not available. Nonetheless, the need for enhanced integration has been discussed for years and many believe it's only around the corner. Gamewell's Casamassima thinks that the future of integration could even extend to using wildly different devices to detect fire situations.

"Because of the advanced technology of today's security offerings, it's inevitable that cameras will soon be used as part of a fire system for detection," said Casamassima. "This opens the door to convergence of other systems for control and monitoring purposes."

In summary, as the market heats up for more intelligent, integrated fire solutions, manufacturers are racing to squeeze additional software-driven features into each panel while attempting to reduce parts. Von Richthofen explains that the market is requiring conventional technology that does more.

"What's driving technology is the race to build a better mousetrap," aid Von Richthofen. "We all want to satisfy the standards, at a lower cost to consumers, while building a much more robust, reliable product."

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