Fire Alarm Upgrades: Reasons for Renovation

Feb. 10, 2012
Business and technology trends driving fire alarm upgrades

The environment surrounding any type of life safety or security system has changed rapidly over the past decade. Technological advancements and tragedies such as Virginia Tech have brought about more stringent local and national requirements.

States like Rhode Island have seen their fair share of local fire alarm code changes. The West Warwick, R.I., Station Night Club fire that claimed the lives of 100 people in February 2003 led the state to make sweeping changes to, most notably, its “grandfather” clauses. The upkeep of antiquated systems is no longer allowed.

“In Rhode Island and many other states, older, simplistic systems must be upgraded. Wiring integrity, fault tolerance and survivability are other critical factors that have lead local authorities to mandate Class A, style 6 or 7 field wiring,” said Dick Aldrich, project engineer for Gamewell-FCI, a manufacturer of commercial fire alarm and emergency communications systems.

With NFPA setting the standard for many municipalities, any change in NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm & Signaling Code® can initiate a widespread need for system upgrades. When crafting the current 2010 version of NFPA 72, intelligibility of fire alarm audio was a big focus. These new regulations are meant to improve the clarity of live voice and recorded messages delivered via fire alarm EVAC (emergency voice/audio communications) systems. Raising the volume of audible notification is simply not enough.

Public places such as airports, auditoriums, hospitals and schools top the list for EVAC upgrades. With many regional codes requiring EVAC systems in high-rise applications, new intelligibility requirements led to a flurry of renovations in a number of cities across the U.S.

During EVAC upgrades, municipalities encompassing large Spanish-speaking communities have considered adding bilingual audio messaging, claims Aldrich. “Regions within primarily California, Florida and Texas have begun looking to us for voice evac messaging in both Spanish and English. We also added two Spanish-speaking tech support people to assist with calls,” said Aldrich.

The 2010 edition of NFPA 72 also includes a new, lengthy section on emergency communications systems (ECS). Heightened public safety expectations and liability concerns have caused a large segment of healthcare, industrial and educational facilities to contemplate a combined fire alarm/ECS. Some municipalities are in the early phases of mandating an ECS for various public buildings and places of assembly. Taking a page from history, any new NFPA codes concerning ECS are sure to foster required renovations.

Technologies for change

Codes and public pressures aside, a host of new technologies are being designed to make renovations easier and more cost-conscious.

At some point, a fire alarm system can simply become obsolete. Parts are no longer produced or the cost to maintain these systems has started to outweigh the expense of a renovation. Many multi-building complexes have found themselves saddled with a variety of systems, all different in make and age.

The networking and monitoring capabilities of today’s fire alarms have become tremendously sophisticated. Facility and security managers have found it worth the investment to upgrade to new systems that can be tied together and monitored from one or more remote locations.

“In 1985, a low-end, low-complexity fire alarm could have a 20-year lifespan. Today’s systems are faster and more sophisticated, and are heavily dependent on software to provide intelligent system response and control. These systems must be capable of accepting ongoing software upgrades to keep pace with rapid code changes and customer demands for additional features,” said Aldrich.

According to Aldrich, new technologies designed to save building owners money in the renovation process is a current trend many manufacturers are trying to grasp. Modular systems providing a customized fit per application while requiring less materials and therefore decreasing costs, seem to be the most favorable among facility owners. Sophisticated modules allowing existing detection and notification devices to integrate with new, more advanced fire alarm control panels are providing huge renovation savings. Some types of pre-existing wire can also be utilized to decrease material and labor costs and speed installation time.

“It’s important to have an experienced designer put the system together to make sure it’s done right. It’s also their job to know when and how to apply these money-saving innovations,” added Aldrich.

Opportunities to take advantage of buildings’ existing networks and eliminate dedicated phone line charges by switching over to IP (Internet Protocol) for fire alarm reporting to central stations is a huge cost-saver that many dealers are offering existing customers. However, recent introductions of GSM fire alarm communicators, such as Honeywell’s IPGSM-DP, offer not only another method of reporting signals (via cellular), but dual-primary communications pathways for added redundancy.

As codes change and technologies are enhanced, acquiring the best fire protection, specific to the needs of each application, is always the ultimate goal. However, renovations need not always entail a costly system overhaul.