Bridging the Gap Between Fire and ECS

Aug. 5, 2014
Integrating emergency communications and messaging systems can save lives, but there are challenges to overcome

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion about the evolution of emergency communications systems (ECS) as systems designers and other professionals struggle to refine processes and piece together disparate technologies.

This interest in ECS is partially a response to tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary and the Boston Marathon. It is also being driven by the technology’s ability to offer advance warning of certain events, such as tornadoes and other weather-related phenomena, as well as the critical need to provide as much notice as possible to protect lives and property. So far, emergency communication has been reserved for the biggest projects — the main drivers are still in military, K-12, higher education and healthcare. The corporate market is also emerging as a powerhouse.

To put it into perspective, ECS is something of an evolving behavioral change. The needs of the growing array of ECS users are forcing many of us to reconsider how voice communication is used in fire and life safety systems. This approach to ECS is finally beginning to take hold because of changes to NFPA 72 in the past few years; however, even though NFPA code provides the most current guidelines, adoption does not happen quickly, and no two solutions are exactly the same. Instead, customizable solutions can stem from the same starting point even if not mandated by code.

Integration Challenges

ECS systems are designed to integrate fire, security and communications systems for immediate, responsive and effective notification to the appropriate audiences. They also need to centralize data from other building systems. How to achieve this differs for each application; and the key to a successful integration is capturing the unique nuances of each application. Therein lies the challenge: integrating all aspects for a balanced system.

What are some of the common challenges? Let’s start with the obvious scenario: regulated fire and life safety systems integrated with non-regulated systems. Though centralized management is essential to interoperability, a challenge remains in incorporating devices that predate IP-based networks, which were never meant to intercommunicate. Examples of non-fire systems that often integrate with fire and life safety systems include security, card access control, video surveillance, background music, paging, building automation, and time-and-attendance systems. A common reason to integrate non-fire systems with a fire system is to ensure the non-fire systems react appropriately when signaled by the fire and life safety system.

Although the NFPA 72 code permits fire systems to share components, equipment, circuitry and installation wiring with non-fire systems, the code also requires the operation of a non-fire system function originating within a connected non-fire system to not interfere with the required operation of the fire alarm system.

In addition, when multiple systems are integrated, it is not always clear who is in charge — there can be multiple Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) as well as other facility, fire and security personnel, or even the building owner. There may be conflicting standards — for example, from a security or fire system perspective — that need to be resolved. Unless there is a clear separation between the fire and security systems, both authorities will work in unison to grant system compliance. There are instances where one system will defer to the other.

The same can be said of what system is in charge, which entails having a systems command structure. This can tie into the fire alarm control panel that will act as the main control point of the integrated systems. What determines which system overrides another is the big question: Is it safe to assume the fire/ECS takes command?

Again, we can turn to the NFPA 72 code. In integrated systems, the code requires fire alarm signals to be distinctive, clearly recognizable and able to indicate in descending order of priority. Signals associated with life safety take priority, followed by signals for property protection, then all trouble signals for life and/or property protection, and finally all other signals.

Signal priorities may vary, depending on the emergency response plan and requirements of the AHJ(s). As most designers and contractors already know, the NFPA code now allows ECS and mass notification messages to take priority over the fire alarm audible notification message or signal under prescribed conditions designated in the risk analysis and emergency response plan. This allows the ECS to prioritize emergency signals based on the risk to building occupants.

The code also requires the desired operation to be specified, in particular, as to what should occur immediately after the ECS message has completed. In fact, next to security systems, ECSs are probably the most integrated with fire alarm systems, followed by CO systems.

Messaging and Intelligibility

The order of message generation can also be a point of contention. Coordinating an ECS’s function with other systems that communicate audibly or visibly (such as fire alarm, security and public address systems) is essential to provide effective communication in an emergency situation. Conflicting or competing signals or messages from different systems could confuse occupants and affect occupant response in an undesirable way. Where a building or space has independent signaling systems that use audible or visible notification, the emergency communications system needs to interface with those systems to influence related control actions, such as deactivating both audible and visible notification appliances.

Also recognize that simply providing information does not guarantee immediate and appropriate response from the target audience.

Intelligibility is a problem that goes hand-in-hand with messaging. Many voice communications systems are still designed around the principles of audibility rather than intelligibility — in short, louder does not equal more easily understood.

While traditional paging systems are not supervised and easily breached, combination fire and emergency communications systems are designed for higher survivability, reliability and robustness, and any faults in the system are immediately reported by the fire alarm component.

Planning for the Future

NFPA 72 code can provide the most current guidelines, but until local jurisdictions adopt it, there is no accountability to those standards. The key to designing an integrated system is to follow the latest codes even if they are not yet adopted. This is paramount as the needs of a growing array of ECS users continue to drive technological advances to accommodate ECS, fire and security interoperability.

The good news is that a new generation of solutions reaches and manages all systems simultaneously whether or not they sit on the network. From a single console, one person can disseminate messages via a variety of modes. For older technologies that predate IP networks, numerous interface controllers can connect IP and non-IP legacy assets.

Another trend in ECS is collecting data from external data sources such as the National Weather Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Consider how the dissemination of information would be helpful during an influenza pandemic or an anthrax threat. These systems can also automate alerts for quick dissemination of essential information, followed up with additional details as needed.

Systems can provide a secure real-time information sharing framework, allowing facilities to communicate to other locations or campuses as well as to local fire, police and health departments for a better understanding of the emergency, enabling administrators to make more informed decisions when time is of the essence.

Rebecca Peterson is Product Marketing Manager-AV for System Sensor. To request more information about the company, please visit