Institutions looking to upgrade their fire alarm systems should be certain their old and new equipment can communicate with each other. New solutions should also include an mass notification so campus officials can convey important public safety information to building occupants.

Fire Systems and Mass Notification

Even during tough economic times, campuses seem to always be expanding, and this new construction often includes the installation of fire alarm systems that have come on the market recently. Those systems usually can identify a whole host of issues: from smoke detector activations to water flow from sprinklers. They can also pinpoint the location of an alarm, which is a particularly handy feature in a large facility.

But in addition to new construction and the latest technology that goes with it, most campuses also have buildings that were erected years earlier. Back then, fire alarm systems on the market didn’t provide very much information about the cause of an alarm. Also, the systems consisted of horns and strobes that communicated only one thing: “Everyone in the building must evacuate.”

“If you had talked to most school folks 15 years ago, they would have never thought they needed a procedure to lockdown a school,” says Greg Jakubowski, who is principal and chief engineer for Fire Planning Associates. “But now after these school shootings and other events, folks realize they need a procedure to lockdown the building. That requires a different type of alarm than the fire alarm box with all of the horns and strobes going off, which was all the systems were capable of doing when they were designed 20 years ago.”

Additionally, fire systems were installed on a piecemeal basis, and the equipment – often from different manufacturers – didn’t communicate with each other.

So how should university, school and hospital officials go about integrating their old fire alarm systems with their new ones so they can talk to each other? CS interviewed some of today’s top fire protection professionals for their sage advice on how institutions can tackle this troubling issue.

Combo Systems Cost Less, Provide Limited Data

Some campuses may choose to have minimal system interoperability. In these cases, probably the easiest and least expensive way of upgrading fire alarm equipment is to adopt a combined reporting solution that allows all brands of fire alarm systems to report basic fire alarm data, says Hughes Associates Inc.‘s Senior Engineer Michael J. Madden.

“A lot of campuses are just concerned about monitoring the fire alarm systems but not having a whole lot of interoperability between them,” he says. “In those instances, it’s not that big of an issue if you have fire alarm systems from different manufacturers because all of them have a method of sending a signal out to a receiving station.”

The downside of this type of solution, however, is that it doesn’t identify the specific type of problem that is causing the alarm, nor does it provide zones so the problem can be quickly located by first responders. Fortunately, campuses that wish to address these challenges and improve system interoperability have several options.

“There are proprietary systems out there where a manufacturer provides a whole suite of systems that can communicate with each other and take the place of each other in case there is a problem with the panels,” says J. Madden. “Certainly, there are a lot of advantages if a campus wants to lock itself into a single manufacturer and convert older panels to that manufacturer.”

Other advantages of proprietary systems and some third-party systems is that they can take in and process more information. The cost of training and upkeep can also be less expensive.

“It’s always best to standardize on a single line of equipment,” says Security Sales & Integrationmagazine Technical Writer Al Colombo. “Not only does this make service and maintenance easier and less costly, it also means that you only have to train personnel once, not a zillion times.”

J. Madden, however, offers a word of caution: “Sometimes you can set up future terms or purchasing arrangements. But then again, some manufacturers, once they sell you a system and put all of their equipment in, think they’ve got you over a barrel.”

For campuses that have many fire alarm systems from many different manufacturers, he recommends third-party network solutions as opposed to proprietary ones. That way, not every panel needs to be replaced during an upgrade.

Incorporate Audio Into New Fire Solutions

Most fire experts recommend campuses also include voice evacuation in their new fire alarm systems to provide mass notification capabilities.

“There is a movement to change all of the individual buildings into a voice-type system that can be managed individually,” says Cooper Notification Vice President of Marketing Ted Millburn. “It could be through the fire alarm system, or it could be a standalone solution involve voice evacuation.”

The reasons for including a mass notification are fairly straightforward: it’s no longer appropriate for a fire alarm system to only set off strobes and sirens indicating people in a building should evacuate. Now, these systems (mass notification) must be able to direct building occupants on what to do and where to go during a multitude of potential emergencies.

For example, during an active shooter incident, campus officials might need to use a mass notification system too tell occupants to shelter in place. For a tornado, the verbal instructions might be for students, staff, patients and visitors to move away from windows and into the building’s interior or basement. Additionally, instructions might vary from building to building.

Because of the need for campus fire systems to address more than just fires, many experts anticipate that in the near future, the majority of new systems deployed on campuses will include mass notification.

“I think in the next five years, we will have very few horn/strobe-type systems being installed,” says Michael T. Madden, who is national sales manager for Gamewell FCI. “I think we’re going to move over to voice just for the simple reason that it does so much more.”

If a campus does decide to incorporate mass notification or voice evacuation in its fire system, intelligibility becomes a key factor. After all, what’s the point of having an emergency public announcement system if building occupants can’t understand the information being conveyed?

The focus on intelligibility, both in practice, as well as in NFPA 72, 2010, means that the placement of fire system speakers will need to be revised.

“The days of spreading out your speakers to 75 feet and just cranking up the volume are behind us,” says T. Madden. “It’s more important now to design the system to be highly intelligible without rattling people’s ears. [Before,] fire alarms were very simple. We made a lot of noise to get people out of the building. But if we are going to use system to deal with more than just fire, the content of that message is the most important thing.”

Master Plans Guide the Procurement Process

The method of determining what should be installed or upgraded, however, should not be haphazard. An assessment and long-term plan are needed in order for a campus to select the most appropriate fire alarm system.

“They should take a step back and go through a process of master planning,” says J. Madden. “What do you want the system to do? What kind of information do you want? What do all of the other stakeholders in this process want?”

Jakubowski suggests that safety and security professionals use their most polished political skills when approaching administrators and other stakeholders about a new fire system.

“Don’t ram it down people’s throats saying, ‘This is terrible. We need to do something about it immediately,’” he says.

Instead, he recommends a measured approach incorporating the upgrade in the institution’s five- or 10-year plan.

“Otherwise, 20-30 years from now, you are going to be facing a very large bill to upgrade your system to the current technology,” Jakubowski says. “At some point, the systems you have right now are going to start failing.”

Article Provided By: Campus Safety

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