Addressable Fire Alarm Systems

May 1, 2002
Integral Ingredients In The Future Of Fire Detection
The goal of the fire alarm industry is to increase the efficiency of fire alarm technology for early and pinpointed response. In the area of fire detection and annunciation, incredible maintenance and operation advances are continuously being introduced. A constant vigil is kept over advancements in life safety and fire detection to guarantee their legitimacy, functionality and reliability. Addressable alarms is an area which has grown in stature in recent years. It provides many advantages over conventional methods and offers new features not possible before. Addressable fire alarms were for many years hardwired, and now recently have gone wireless. Supervised wireless technology is now at a point where it achieves the requisite levels of reliability and performance that the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) requires. The strongest demand for advanced fire alarm panels comes from the commercial and industrial markets, driven by local, state and federal building codes. Building codes dictate that all commercial buildings must have fire detection and prevention systems. According to Frost & Sullivan, the fire panel market as a whole, comprised of conventional, addressable and voice-evacuation panels, generated revenues of $356 million in 2000. Frost & Sullivan projects that number to top $520 million by 2007.

Quick and Accurate
The NFPA, a preeminent code writing authority in the fire alarm industry, writes the rules to which all fire detection equipment is measured. The NFPA is a consensus driven code making organization. The codes produced are the result of both the study of forensic evidence gathered from past fire disasters and the opinions of experts. A huge body of fire professionals, including engineers, architects, manufacturers, firefighters, EMT's, installers, etc., reviews every element of the code. This group cherishes the value of human life, and will only approve a code or amendment after those involved can agree that it will provide an improvement over the current technology. The NFPA is open to suggestions from any inter-ested party.

Richard Roux, senior electrical engineer for the NFPA, comments on the role addressable fire alarms play in the improvement of life safety and fire alarm operation. "A properly designed, installed, tested and maintained addressable fire alarm system enables responding personnel to identify the location of a fire quickly and accurately," says Roux.

"Also, an addressable system indicates the status of emergency equipment or fire safety functions that might affect the safety of occupants in a fire situation," he continues. "The location of an operated initiating device is visibly indicated by building, floor, fire zone, or other approved subdivision by annunciation, printout, or other approved means. It identifies not only the zone of origin of the alarm initiation but specifically by individual detector or alarm initiating device."

Building codes, NFPA 101 Life Safety Code and local ordinances often require each floor of a building to be zoned separately for smoke detectors, waterflow switches, manual fire alarm boxes, and other initiating devices. "Addressable systems easily provide individual device status on the fire alarm system control unit," Roux states. "Addressable multiplex devices often satisfy those requirements and are a significant improvement over non-addressable technologies."

Once the NFPA determines a technology can perform, then the rest of the industry and the public decide if they will accept it. Addressable fire alarm technology has proven itself in regards to both performance and value, and is the standard in new fire alarm installations. It is frequently applied to upgrades of older installations as well.

Installation of an addressable system can be less expensive because it is less complex than conventional wiring and, therefore, can be installed faster. The addressable fire alarms technologies used are proprietary from manufacturer to manufacturer but all must be approved by NFPA.

The Big Payoff
The installation cost savings of wireless technology enable dealers to protect more people that formerly couldn't be protected, comments Joel Christianson, director of commercial marketing, GE Interlogix. "Those instances include low-income housing and installations where asbestos abatement would cause delays and drive up costs," he says.

The benefit of addressable fire alarms, according to Roux, are the enhanced performance and life safety characteristics. "Address-able detectors and devices communicate individually with the fire alarm control unit via a signaling line circuit," he explains.

"In NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, 1-5.8," says Roux, "you'll find the requirements pertaining to monitoring for integrity. An addressable device is a fire alarm system component with discrete identification that can have its status individually identified or that is used to individually control other functions. These may be either initiating devices or control appliances. An initiating device provides the fire alarm system control panel with its status and actual location. The control appliance receives operating commands from the fire alarm system control panel. Digital addresses for each device or appliance can be assigned by the system hardware or software."

Addressable technology makes possible the pinpointing of a fire and therefore accelerates the speed of response. Addressable systems are mapped: every detection device has its own ID; and the location of each ID is displayed or otherwise annunciated locally and almost always digitally communicated in great detail to the central station or fire department. Where to respond and perhaps a foreknowledge of the particular scenario (storage room, sleeping area, etc.) of the event helps firefighters and responders.

Scott Larson, product manager for Faraday Fire Alarm Systems, feels the two loop addressable panels are as easy to install. "They are versatile systems that will work in a variety of applications," he states. "You can put more and more devices on a single addressable loop and integrate that loop with a variety of other functions such as security and signaling devices."

"The most significant developments in addressable fire alarm technology is in the field of networking," says Jim Kimpel, product manager for Fire Control Instruments, Inc. "With more emphasis being placed on system survivability and flexibility, I see further developments in network system technology including low cost distributed audio and distributed intelligence. The enhancements will greatly improve life safety in fire, tornado, and special hazard applications as well as reduce installation costs even further."

Service and Maintenance are Enhanced
Kimpel agrees that the market is increasingly demanding more cost effective installed systems while at the same time raising the bar on system survivability. "Developments in self diagnostic fire alarm technology improve both performance and life safety by alerting service personnel when detectors and/or modules become defective or dirty," Kimpel comments. "It allows technicians to isolate most problems down to an individual sensor which results in a typical building maintaining the same level of detector sensitivity and protection as the day the system was commissioned."

These developments benefit the dealer in a couple of ways. First, by reducing the amount of time a technician spends on an average service call, the dealer can better utilize his manpower and pass on the resulting savings to the customer. Kimpel asserts, "The result is a customer who is more likely to request service on the onset of a problem rather than 'put off' the service due to cost concerns. This again results in improved life safety."

Self diagnostics never preclude the need for scheduled maintenance, Kimpel clearly warns. NFPA has established guidelines which ensure that all aspects of fire systems are maintained. For example, mechanical switch failures on devices like waterflow switches or manual stations would not be normally detected without periodic maintenance. Other conditions like bagged detectors, devices left in ceilings after renovations, audio/visual devices removed or blocked, to name a few, would go undetected or uncorrected without maintenance.

Scheduled maintenance ensures a better performance and detection, offers Christianson. "Self diagnostics is a fail-safe feature from the manufacturer to better protect the end user," he says.

The value of addressable fire alarms is also a long term payback to both the client and the installer because servicing and maintenance of addressables is far more efficiently performed than with conventional systems where multiple devices share a loop and are unable to identify troubles individually. Addressable fire alarm systems and wireless fire alarms are major advances in electronic life safety. They permit faster installations, provide concise reporting of fire events, expedite troubleshooting and, along with the host of other features incorporated into microprocessor based FAC's, bring the fire protection to higher levels than ever before.

Tim O'Leary is an independent security consultant, with a background in the design, sale, manufacture and installation of access control and other equipment.