When It’s Time for a Fire Alarm Upgrade
When a single K-12 school or school district needs to upgrade its fire alarm system, which technologies are most compelling and why?
Addressable fire alarm systems would appear to be tailor-made for the K-12 educational market — and many schools already have adopted the technology, simplifying maintenance and providing more detailed information in the event that the local fire department must be called in. Yet, budget issues have prevented some schools from installing addressable fire systems and have prevented some schools with older addressable systems from obtaining the latest generation of the fire alarm technology.
Are these schools good prospects for a fire alarm system upgrade or not? SDM asked several manufacturers and dealers involved in this market, and what we learned was that the answer may be “yes” or “no” depending on the circumstances.
Is Money Available?
Money is so tight for some schools and school districts that it takes either an expansion or a crisis before the school district will consider spending any money on their fire systems, several sources interviewed for this article admitted.
What often drives a school to consider a fire system upgrade is a violation notice from the fire department, notes Denise Rueda, director of public relations for Briscoe Protective, a Centereach, N.Y.-based security dealer. “If their equipment can’t meet code or sends out false alarms, they’re forced to upgrade,” she says. “For insurance reasons they have to keep the school safe.”
Kenneth Hoffmann, CEO of DynaFire, a Casselberry, Fla. based-dealer, has a similar observation. “The largest reason a school needs to upgrade is when the panel in the building is manufactured by a manufacturer that doesn’t support the product anymore,” he says.
When a school is forced to make a system upgrade but does not have a budget for that expense, it may be forced to tap emergency funds, which may be limited — driving the school to the least costly solution, some sources say.
But some school districts do budget for fire systems.
Craig Summers, national sales manager for St. Louis-based fire equipment manufacturer Potter Electric Signal, notes that when a bond measure involving a school district is passed, improvements to the fire system are often attached. When this occurs, Summers says, “Either local dealers or someone on staff contacts the school district early on and asks how they can assist.”
Dave Sheffey, vice president of eastern sales for Amityville, N.Y.-based manufacturer Napco Security Technologies, also sees some school districts that have funding available for fire system upgrades. Some larger school districts are in “perpetual motion,” he describes. At any point in time, they are working on at least one fire system somewhere in their district.
But even when school districts have money available for a fire alarm system, it’s not always clear who they will turn to for assistance. Some may talk to the dealer that put the original system in, while others may talk to the dealer that handles system inspection (which may be a different company). Often school districts hire an engineering firm or specifier to help make sure the system meets all local code requirements and to recommend the type of system the school district should buy. Yet, others consult with manufacturers, particularly if they are satisfied with a previous system from a specific manufacturer. When that happens, the manufacturer may be asked to recommend several reputable dealers in the area that have installed the product.
Several sources interviewed for this article note, however, that some school districts shy away from what are sometimes termed “proprietary” products. By that, they mean products that are only available through certain dealers. In addition, although some jobs go out for bid and are awarded to the lowest bidder, that’s not always a given, Summers comments. If a job is below a certain cost level, the school or school system may not be required to go through a bid process.
The upshot, Sheffey says, is that “you have to be flexible.” The approach that works in selling one school system may not work in another.
An Addressable Edge?
Any school system planning a brand new fire system installation is likely to select an addressable system because decision-makers recognize the advantages over a non-addressable system, also known as a conventional or zoned system.
“From a notification standpoint, you know specifically where that detector or pull station is,” Sheffey explains. “It isn’t one of 12 on a line.”
That capability is especially important for schools, notes Jay Levy, Southwest regional manager for Buena Park, Calif.-based manufacturer Hochiki USA. “In a school district, having the ability to identify exactly where an emergency is becomes very critical because you have kids in there and you want to protect their lives.”
Levy adds, however, that another advantage of addressable systems is that they are easier and less costly to install than zoned systems. “With old conventional panels you pulled a pair of wires for smokes, another pair for pull stations, and additional pairs for water flow and tamper,” Levy explains. “With an addressable system you can put detectors and modules of different types on the same pair of wires.”
Conventional systems also are more difficult to service, often requiring a service call from a dealer, Sheffey observes. With an addressable system, school maintenance personnel may be able to handle routine detector replacement on their own.
But are these advantages compelling enough to drive a school with a conventional fire alarm system to justify the expense of an upgrade? Some experts say the answer often is “no” because of budget constraints. Others say there is a possibility of persuading the school to make the upgrade, but that the most compelling reason for the upgrade often is not addressability in and of itself.
“The biggest driving factor is IP capability,” comments Summers, in reference to alarm systems that use the Internet protocol over a data network connection to communicate to the central monitoring station.
As Lew Kramer, applications solution designer for Springfield, Mo.-based manufacturer Digital Monitoring Products (DMP) explains, the key advantage of using IP fire alarm communications is that it can meet NFPA supervision requirements for commercial fire systems without requiring the two dedicated phone lines that a non-IP system would require. Eliminating the dedicated phone lines can add up to many savings, which can help justify the cost of a system upgrade.
As Tom Mechler, product marketing manager for Fairport, N.Y.-based manufacturer Bosch Security Systems explains, an IP connection to the fire alarm panel can provide other benefits, such as the ability for the security director to obtain an alarm history from an individual panel through a Web interface.
Even if a school or school district likes the idea of IP, there are various ways it can be implemented; which route decision-makers take may depend on their budget. Some manufacturers offer IP communications modules that can be connected to existing conventional or non-IP addressable fire alarm panels, eliminating the need to replace the alarm panel or the installed sensors. If the existing system is a conventional or zoned system, information will be reported to the central station by zone rather than by individual sensor — and the school will not obtain the troubleshooting benefits. However, this may be a relatively low-cost way to eliminate the two phone lines.
Alternatively, a school may opt to replace a non-IP addressable or conventional fire panel with an addressable panel that is capable of communicating in IP. If the budget is tight and the existing system is a conventional one, the school may not be able to replace all of the existing conventional sensors with equivalent addressable devices — at least not right away. But decision-makers might be persuaded to put a plan in place to replace a certain number of conventional sensors each year for a few years until the entire system has been upgraded.
Before attempting to sell IP fire alarm communications to a school, however, dealers should make sure they are familiar with local fire codes. As Sheffey notes, some state and local authorities do not accept the use of IP communications for fire alarm systems — at least not yet. “Over the next two to three years that will change dramatically,” he predicts.
Florida High School Upgrades to Networked Addressable Fire System
Osceola High School in Osceola County, Fla., is a campus-style school with multiple buildings that were built over a 20-year period. Each time a new building was added, the fire system for the building went out for bid and, as a result, the school had a hodge-podge of equipment from a range of manufacturers, including some point addressable and some conventional systems.
Recently the high school renovated and added several new buildings — and when it came to installing additional fire protection, county-level decision-makers wanted to standardize on a single product line.
The specification that went out for bid was for an addressable system with networking capability, and the job went to DynaFire, a Casselberry, Fla.-based dealer that bid the job through an electrical contractor.
“There’s rarely a project that breaks ground in central Florida that our estimating crew doesn’t already know about,” comments DynaFire Operations Manager Glen Boucher. The education market is one of DynaFire’s specialties, and to support that focus the company keeps tabs on public bidding lists and maintains close contacts with general contractors and electrical contractors.
Around the same time that DynaFire won the bid to upgrade Osceola High School, the company also won a bid to upgrade the fire alarm system at another high school in the same district that also had multiple buildings and equipment from a mix of manufacturers, and which also was upgraded to a networked addressable system.
Benefits of Addressability
Because the new fire system at Osceola High School is networked and point-addressable, security staff now can check the status of the entire system from any one of several annunciators installed throughout the campus. In the event of an alarm, county personnel know exactly which building to go to and which sensor within the building triggered the alarm.
“It helps them respond faster,” explains Boucher, and that’s particularly useful in Osceola County, where it’s the policy of county personnel to respond to every alarm, even if it appears to be a false alarm.
County decision-makers saw a networked addressable system as a way of minimizing fire system service costs, notes Boucher. “By standardizing on one product line, they deal with fewer service people and carry less inventory,” he explains. “They don’t need specific companies to work on specific products.”
In addition, detectors generate an alert when they begin to get dirty so that the situation can be addressed before it causes problems.
The networked fire system runs on two strands of fiber optic cabling interconnecting all of the buildings on campus. The cabling is part of a fiber bundle that was installed by information technology specialists to support a computer network as part of the school renovations. The use of fiber also should help minimize service calls in comparison with the earlier system, which used copper wiring to interconnect some of the buildings and was prone to damage from lightning strikes.
The fire system installed at Osceola High School uses two phone lines for communications because that is the communications method specified in the bid. However, the new fire alarm system is capable of supporting alternative communications methods such as IP or wireless mesh in the event that county officials opt to make a change in the future.