Embracing Change in the Fire Alarm Industry

March 13, 2015
How technological advancement and user expectations are having a dramatic impact

Advancements in technology — from IP to mobile and beyond — have resulted in major changes in the life safety industry for everything but fire alarm systems… until now.

The fire alarm industry has been stable for many years other than a few tweaks. The largest change came in the early 1990s with the introduction of Signaling Line Circuits (SLC) or Addressable Fire Alarm Systems. Today, in response to the shift in society due to the evolution of technology, the fire alarm industry is undergoing numerous changes — changes in code, the demise of old technology, a push to decrease false alarms while increasing standards and the escalation in user expectations — are all contributing to the significant changes in the industry.

The fire alarm industry was stagnant for so long, making it inevitable that major changes were on the horizon. Now that change is finally being accepted in the fire alarm industry, it is expected to continue in the years to come.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), realizing that there had not been any significant changes since the late 1800s, has begun to fully embrace technology and apply it to the fire alarm industry. The NFPA Standards Council has taken into consideration the expectations of society and technological advancements to create individual chapters to address these matters.

With that in mind, the Council saw the opportunity to rewrite NFPA72 2010 Edition to allow for expansion from 11 chapters to 29 chapters. With the expansion, chapters were written to address current technologies, while other chapters were left blank to provide space for future additions to the code; thus opening the door for the many changes in the future.

Out with the Old: From POTS to Broadband

One of the major changes creating a technological shift in the fire alarm industry stems from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filing which resulted from a request made by AT&T that the FCC allow them to no longer support copper telephone lines — which the industry had relied on since the early 1980s. AT&T cited numerous reasons for the request, including losing roughly 700,000 landlines per month with POTS revenue falling $178.6 billion in 2000 to $130.8 billion in 2007. This request would transition from legacy switch network (Plain Old Telephone Service – POTS) to broadband, resulting in a major change in the fire alarm industry.

The NFPA and the industry has relied on Publically Switched Telephone Networks and POTS lines to communicate the daily tests, signals and alarm signals for years. When this technology becomes obsolete, the industry will have a widespread issue of thousands of panels potentially not being monitored; therefore, new technology needed to be adopted.

As POTS lines become more obsolete, the industry has been left to adopt new technologies that address both the thousands of panels that are currently monitored via POTS lines and new installations moving forward. Internet Protocol (IP), Managed Facilities Voice Network (MFVN) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) were three of the newly adopted technologies that are capable of replacing or mimicking POTS lines. Although these technologies were identified in the late 1990s, the industry as a whole has been slow to adopt them. One of the main concerns was the need for the same reliability as POTS lines with the redundancy that had always been a requirement of the code.

Understanding those two factors — reliability and redundancy — NFPA was able to establish that these new technologies either met or exceeded the reliability and redundancy of the outgoing POTS lines. With these newer technologies, the systems are tested at a higher frequency for the daily test rather than the 24-hour test that was required on POTS lines via Digital Alarm Communicator Transmitter (DACT). This change results in knowing if communication has been lost between the premise and the monitoring company in as early as 90 seconds.

Decrease False Alarms while Increasing Standards

Due to decreasing budgets of businesses owners and the fire service community, there is an essential need to decrease false alarms while increasing protection of people and property. Technological advancements of multi-criteria detectors, air sampling and certification programs have resulted in the ability to increase reliability and protection while decreasing false alarms.

Users of a facility are able to install multi-criteria detectors so that two conditions for alarm of a single detector are met prior to giving notice to the panel. Having multiple triggers helps to decrease the chance of dirt, steam or kitchen smoke from causing false alarms. Additionally, multi-criteria detectors can be set up to provide a supervisory signal to give earlier detection which gives the user or occupants of the building the opportunity to verify a condition rather than wait for the second condition to occur.

While air sampling has been around for years, it was more commonly used for early detection and high-velocity raised floor systems commonly found in computer and data centers. The expansion of this technology has resulted in additional providers, thus allowing it to enter the mainstream.

The availability of air sampling systems allows for reliable coverage in difficult or harsh areas such as dirty and/or wet environments. Additionally, the piping of these systems is designed so that users have the ability to fully and properly test the system. This in-depth testing would have potentially been ignored due to building construction and cost to erect scaffolding for testing beam or spot detectors in areas such as atriums or hard to reach locations.

Coupled with the technology advancements of multi criteria detectors and air sampling systems, alarm certification programs have been developed to ensure that NFPA standards for installation, testing and maintenance are followed. These programs have allowed fire service communities to adopt local legislation that require owners to have their systems certificated, thus ensuring that they are properly installed, tested, and maintained without added resources.

Escalation of Expectations

Due to today’s fast-paced environment, users have become accustomed to and expect wireless, IP, mobility, flexibility and ease of use for any technology they use — and of course, that would include fire alarm systems. This ongoing escalation of expectations has forced changes in the manufacturing of fire alarm systems. Voice notification to all occupants, the implementation of wireless devices, and the ease of accessing information immediately from the fire alarm systems are just a few updates that have helped meet these ever-changing expectations.

Users expect their fire alarm systems to deliver a variety of notifications; therefore, voice evacuation requirements have emerged where notification is provided through the fire alarm system in the event of an emergency situation including inclement weather or active shooter.

Flexibility has become critical when determining device placement. Wireless devices have been developed to provide installation flexibility, giving users the ability to not only relocate devices but also provide an opportunity for applications where it is costly, obtrusive or possibly dangerous to use traditional wired devices. Although wireless devices are generally more expensive per device, savings from installation — especially in difficult areas — can offset the initial cost.

Today’s society is mobile and having information at their fingertips is expected; thus, IP integration/notifications from their fire alarm are essential. Users can receive email notifications of dirty detectors, troubles or alarms from anywhere. More importantly, users can receive information regarding both their security or fire systems on one platform, providing an increased ease in accessing valuable information from multiple systems.

Today, fire alarm systems will no longer be buried in closets and ignored. These systems have become critical to the function of the building for displaying pertinent information, notifying occupants of potential hazards, and viewing other technologies such as security, mass notification, building automation and digital signage.

Chris A. Wilhelm is Director of Construction for Tech Electronics, a solutions-based systems integrator and technology services organization headquartered in St. Louis. His duties include overseeing construction and fire alarm projects. He also manages relationships with the company’s fire alarm system manufacturers.