Mathew Moore, a Fire-Lite technical support representative, inspects an MS9200UDLS fire alarm panel.

The fire protection market has historically been spurred by new construction of office buildings, hotels, schools and other commercial and institutional buildings. Fire codes mandate that these buildings contain fire alarm systems, providing impetus for sales of new fire alarm panels. But as the United States economy grapples with the kind of meltdown not seen in decades, new construction has fallen off precipitously.

How, then, can fire alarm panel sales continue to remain fairly strong? SDM recently posed that question to a group of fire alarm manufacturer professionals, specifically asking them whether continued sales were the result of a robust renovation market, ongoing efforts to retrofit existing fire systems, more stringent fire codes, new and enhanced product features and functions, or a booming fire maintenance market.

The answer, very simply, is apparently “all of the above.”


First, it’s important to challenge the initial premise that new construction isn’t taking place, says Andy Johannsen, director of sales for King of Prussia, Pa.-based VES Fire Detection, maker of eLAN panels. He says his company continues to benefit from construction of hotels, schools and expansion of universities. “Our experience has been there’s been a slowdown in general in the economy, but that in some sectors — hotels, health-care facilities and education — there is steady work, despite the economy,” he reports. “They’re still going to build schools, and colleges will continue to expand.”

It’s also worth recognizing that substantial time can elapse between the moment buildings are financed and new construction begins, says Steve Hein, vice president and general manager of fire and communications on the product management side of Bradenton, Fla.-based GE Security. “We look at Dodge Reports, monitoring permits taken out to construct buildings,” Hein says. “And pretty much across the board there’s a slowdown in new building permits. But one reason we haven’t seen that affecting our fire alarm business as yet is there’s a lag between the time commercial buildings are funded and the actual build-out of current projects. That’s typically about six months. So we may experience a market shrink in fire, but we haven’t seen it as yet.”

It also should be remembered that manufactured fire prevention components are the only ones legislated to be part of new buildings,  Johannsen says. A recession may necessitate cost-cutting measures that keep other components, like video surveillance cameras or access control, out of new construction. But fire detection and prevention must be there.

That means that even if new building construction is reduced, there will still be a market for fire alarm panels in any new construction that does take place, Johannsen reports.

The above assertion is echoed by Charles Davis, product marketing manager responsible for the fire systems line at Fairport, N.Y.-based Bosch Security Systems.

“Regardless of the economy, owners and architects can give up CCTV, they can give up burglar alarms and intrusion, but they cannot give up fire alarm systems,” Davis points out. “There will always be some fire safety strategy in any kind of building constructed. That’s in all building codes, and enforced by all states and jurisdictions. And insurance agencies drive that requirement, too.”

A look inside of Fire-Lite’s engineering testing lab.


When new construction is halted by recession, building activity usually transitions towards retrofitting and renovation, says Dirk von Richtofen, director of engineering for Fire-Lite Alarms, a division of Honeywell Fire Systems in Northford, Conn.

A number of catalysts can trigger retrofits. In many cases, businesses trim employees and move down to more affordable space during recessions. This can spur need for retrofits of existing systems in the new leased spaces, von Richtofen says. In other instances, money may have been budgeted by townships or the businesses themselves for fire alarm systems upgrades. If this work is not done in a timely fashion, the state or municipal fire marshal can come down hard on the company, he adds.

Jeff Netland, director of engineering for Silent Knight, another division of Honeywell Fire Systems, is similarly convinced retrofitting requirements account for many fire alarm sales in recessions like this one. Many companies are staying put in their existing buildings, or even downsizing, presenting the need for retrofitting, he says.

“We’re seeing more retrofit jobs where they update or even replace the system,” Netland says. “We’re still seeing strong demand.”

GE Security’s Hein offers an explanation for some of the retrofitting. In most municipalities, fire marshals are charged with inspecting new buildings constructed in their jurisdictions. These marshals stay very busy during building booms, he says.

But when new building falls off, fire marshals still have to put in eight-hour days. Those days are often filled monitoring fire safety in existing buildings, Hein says. “This tends to generate a retrofit market,” he adds. “It gives [the fire marshal] the opportunity to inspect a building for fire safety for the first time in a couple of years. He goes back, sees all kinds of issues, points them out to end users, and spurs a retrofit market.”

Davis agrees, noting fire alarm panels have to be inspected and tested annually. Local enforcement officials — in most cases, fire marshals — examine the panels. “Through the course of this routine maintenance, there will always be problems uncovered and, as a result, a need for repair and/or renovation,” he says.

It’s not surprising fire marshals find equipment in need of replacement, Johannsen adds. “Legacy systems” in place for 20 or more years naturally break down over time, he says. “What ends up happening is either the sensors or the control equipment are old enough that components are not available for them anymore, the manufacturer is not supporting the panel anymore, and replacement is required — by someone.”

In larger buildings, fire protection systems installed 15 or more years ago are often proprietary, meaning the panel and, for instance, the sensors were designed to work together. If only the sensors are now malfunctioning, that may still necessitate replacement of the fire alarm panel designed to work with those sensors, Johannsen says.

 The good news for sales of fire alarm panels is — whether part of a gut renovation or simply one aspect of additions to an existing system — it’s hard to modify fire protection systems without doing some fire alarm work, Johannsen explains. “There’s built-in work for the dealer installing fire alarm systems when retrofits occur,” he points out.


Part of the continued demand for fire alarm panels also can be linked to changes in codes, say alarm panel manufacturers. According to von Richtofen, the Ninth Edition of the Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems, UL 864, was recently enacted and enforcement started earlier this year. UL 864 mandates that as of January 1, old fire systems in less expensive leased space will be subject to inspection by local authorities who, if they determine the space is not Ninth Edition compliant, can force an upgrade of the outdated systems, von Richtofen says.

In addition, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has mandated mass notification systems for its federal facilities, says Dick Eisenlauer, president of Moline, Ill.-based Harrington Signal Inc., which makes fire detection and mass notification systems. “And we are seeing a lot of higher education institutions now also putting in some type of mass notification systems,” he adds.

New legislation addressing mass notification in an annex will be reflected in the 2010 National Fire Protection Association codes and standards, Hein relates. This legislation will call for mass notification systems to be installed in settings such as institutions of higher learning. As a result, fire alarm systems will be used as tools not only for fire evacuation, but for mass notification, he declares.

“The difference is the latter may or may not call for evacuation from a building,” Hein says. “It may call for occupants to find shelter within the building.”

According to Hein, GE Security is finding many colleges and universities retrofitting fire systems to include mass notification. This may call for replacing the fire alarm panel, for adding to the panel, or for converting to voice evacuation, he says.

Many states are also adopting laws involving the required installation of carbon monoxide (CO) detection, Davis says. In years past, the required installation of CO detection primarily impacted homes and other residential settings, he adds.

“But today it is moving more into the commercial market,” Davis says. “States are mandating CO detection in nursing homes and day care centers, and increasingly adopting the national standard NFPA 720 (2008), called the Standard for the Installation of the Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detection and Warning Equipment, for carbon monoxide detection. “It’s going to become more and more common for CO detectors to be routed through fire alarm panels, and that may require an extension into the existing system.”

Speaking of compliance with government regulations, many legacy systems still don’t comply with the mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Davis states. Depending on the region in which they’re located and decisions made by regulatory agencies, many building owners will eventually be compelled to upgrade their fire protection systems, installing new fire alarm panels with the added power to drive strobes, he says.

“And depending on how a building is designed, they may need door holders, which also require extra power from the fire alarm panel.”


Another driver of fire alarm panel sales is product improvement. It’s been a long time since Ma Bell was the sole provider of telephone communication, von Ricktofen notes. Today, telecommunication is likely to take place through a variety of delivery methods, including cable phone, DSP phone and Voice over IP (VoIP) phone.

These technologies are not necessarily compatible with the way fire alarm panels communicate over telephone lines to a central station dispatch service, he adds.

That’s why some manufacturers now offer Web-based solutions compatible with all of the above technologies, which provide yet another reason to retrofit. “Some authorities fear it, because it’s the unknown,” von Ricktofen remarks. “But there was that same fear 20 years ago about communicating over phone lines.”

Some new systems now can be accessed through a PC, literally allowing a fire alarm system to be controlled and monitored from a computer desktop, Johannsen says. This “dashboard view” lets users determine whether service is required, or determine the problem in the case of an alarm panel’s “failure to test,” he adds.

Technological advancements are spurring sales of new fire alarm panels in another way, Hein adds. Years ago, the most popular system (today referred to as a conventional system) reported fires by zone or area impacted.

Newer technology uses intelligent, addressable-type devices, and each device has its own address and reports back to the fire panel its exact location.

Manufacturers interviewed for this article tended to feel the recession hasn’t affected their sales as much as anticipated. “Our panel sales are down a little bit, but haven’t fallen off the face of the earth,” Davis suggests. At Harrington Signal, Eisenlauer adds, “Our sales are not down. We just haven’t met forecasted growth.”

The recession itself may help to spur some fire alarm sales, as adjustments in business sizes cause changes in office configurations. Code updates and legislation also will help keep the market strong. “The fire detection market is a great business to be in,” Hein says. “I wouldn’t call it recession-proof, but it’s certainly resilient in a recession.”

Could the recession be helping fire alarm system sales? Some think it’s boosting the retrofit market, as businesses downsize and shift office space.

Sidebar: Explore the Multi-Family Market for Fire Detection

The commercial and institutional markets still provide plenty of opportunity for security and fire alarm dealers. But there’s another market for commercial fire alarm panels that not everyone is considering, says VES Fire Detection’s Andy Johannsen. That market is larger multi-family residential settings, such as apartment buildings and condominium developments.

“More condo developments and larger apartment houses will get revamped and rebuilt, and that’s an opportunity for the commercial fire alarm panel manufacturers to gain some new business,” he says.

“With all these foreclosures, people are going somewhere to live.”