Easing the Fear of Fire With Technology
Changes in fire panel and notification technologies can help users do more with fire, and boost integrator sales.
Fire alarm technology doesn’t move very fast, and there are very good reasons for this. Because fire is about saving lives, codes and standards dictate what is allowable, and it takes time to make sure each new development is absolutely safe. But at the same time, in the rest of the world there have been massive advancements in the last decade or so in computing, remote services, cloud, smartphones and all of the buzzwords the technology and security industry continues to come up with. Is there a place where these two converge? Although not on the cutting edge with trends such as the Internet of Things and big data (see cover story, page 53), fire panels and notification appliances are two places where the digital age and other advances are starting to take hold.
“I have been in this industry since 1981,” says Michael Lohr, director of marketing for integrator Red Hawk Fire and Security, Boca Raton, Fla. “One of the trends I am starting to see now that I didn’t before is more interest in preventive maintenance as opposed to just ‘test and inspect.’ End users are starting to see the value of having a system working at peak performance and not waiting until problems occur.
“There are systems out there that do remote diagnostics. We have the ability to know when a detector is getting close to a failure mode. Those kinds of things do exist; they are just not moving as fast as we might like.”
Manufacturers and integrators point to several key technology trends affecting panels, as well as radical changes in notification technology, code and demand that is having a big impact on the fire market overall. Looking down the road, these developments and others are showing the promise of what is — or could be — possible.
Looking In At Panels
From remote look-in to touchscreen displays the latest generation of fire panels has one thing in common: it is addressing the increasing need and desire to have a more “interactive” experience, while at the same time taking away the fear of messing anything up in the process.
“Our facility management tool allows users to look in on systems from anywhere they have an Internet connection,” says Craig Summers, vice president of sales, fire and security division, Potter Signal, St. Louis. “These are the things that swing end users towards replacing a system.” While they can’t change or reset the system, it does give peace of mind, he adds. “If you are a property owner with a dozen buildings you are in charge of, the ability to [remotely] view exactly what the panel is telling you can help you make decisions on what to do next.”
Mike Troiano, president and CEO, Advanced Co., Hopkinton, Mass., has talked with a few end users who fit this profile. “I had a particular end user who wanted to know how our system could make him feel more confident that the equipment was doing its job. It was on a campus and they couldn’t always get help quickly to look at the equipment with confidence. He asked if our product could be looked after by their own staff without affecting the system, while giving them assurance that the system was alive and ticking.”
Troiano pointed the customer to his company’s iP Gateway, a product that configures the system to regularly email whoever they wanted to assure them the system was OK. It also allowed them to train the customer how to interact through the gateway to verify that the system has a heartbeat and is working. “They wanted the ability to do a maintenance check and we have multiple diagnostics built into the product. Detectors can get dusty and dirty. There is a point where they have to send out a warning, but why not have a program where the staff is trained to go up to the panel, push a button and identify those that are starting to get dirty? This gave them the comfort of knowing they can engage with the fire system and they felt better having a system they weren’t afraid to touch.”
Fire panels are often a mystery to users ― generally, one that in the past they just wanted to stick in a corner and hoped it stayed quiet. Now that they are wanting to interact, ease-of-use is a greater draw.
“If you think about what a fire alarm system does in a building it is typically a very passive system,” says Samir Jain, general manager of enterprise solutions business, Honeywell Security and Fire, Northford, Conn. “The user hopes it doesn’t go off because they don’t know what to do with it. There is a fear there and we thought about what we could do to help our operators and end users get past that fear. So we put some time and attention on the user interface to help them understand what the fire alarm is saying and the commands to suppress a simple nuisance alarm.”
What Honeywell and others have done is introduce a touchscreen and intuitive graphics on their panels. “Our Gamewell brand has touchscreen displays that help to guide the person interacting with the fire system,” says Jeff Netland, engineering leader for Honeywell Security and Fire North America Commercial Business, Northford, Conn. “People not traditionally working with the fire system and somewhat unfamiliar with it they may not understand some of the buttons and what they do. But the touchscreen takes the fear of interacting with the fire system away.”
Netland describes a typical scenario where there is an “off normal” condition with the fire system and the user is trying to figure out what to do. “Should they call somebody? This allows them to get a little better information from it so they can take the appropriate action.”
Features like this benefit the integrator or service provider as well. Looking ahead to the next generation panels in development now, Kevin Montgomery, product manager for detection and control products, Blue Springs, Mo.-based Fike Corp., can see not only a service advantage, but a financial one as well.
“We anticipate this ability to remotely troubleshoot and eventually even change configurations. Per code someone has to be at the panel to acknowledge changes. But if I was an owner of an installing company I would send the $10-an-hour guy to the panel and have the $50-an-hour guy do it remotely. That will be a trend.”
Potter will release a product this month called Multi-Connect that will allow up to 63 panels to connect and share a single reporting technology. “We are excited about the opportunity to speak to dealers about how to increase their profitability”
The SIMPLEX ES (eServices) fire alarm panels are also designed to benefit the installer, says John Haynes, global director, Simplex product management, Tyco Fire Protection Products, Westminster, Mass. Internet-enabled capabilities and addressable technology provides value to installers, engineers and end users, including enhanced protection; easier, more flexible design; lower costs of installation, operation and maintenance; and notification appliance self-testing.
“With each appliance being uniquely addressed, they can do self-testing and allow for expanded remote services,” he explains. “From a remote location, if there is a trouble situation they can determine what it is and dispatch the technician with the right part to fix it, or schedule testing.
Some panels are looking ahead to a time when security and fire is potentially more integrated. “We have a fire alarm panel that can have isolated burglary and access added to it,” says Brandt Phillips, commercial fire and security director of sales, Napco Security Technologies, Amityville, N.Y. Unlike the combination panels of the past, which have a checkered past and dubious reception amongst AHJs, this new panel is designed to be “foolproof,” Phillips says. “It gives you all the benefits of the fire system while providing burglar and access, with no negative impact on the fire system whatsoever. It is designed in such a way that the installing dealer can’t make a mistake or impact the fire system.”
Honeywell Security and Fire North America is also looking ahead. It merged several divisions together last year with the aim to do more with making products integrate and work together. “We have been able to integrate a lot of our fire panel systems using some of the common or open standards like BACnet or Modbus and we are seeing more demand for that,” Netland says. “People really want information more centralized and we are seeing more use of the products we provide with gateways that allow fire systems to provide data to the building and security systems.”
One of the biggest trends in the fire market today — and one that is helping drive it forward — is the increase in interest and adoption of mass notification systems. But notification encompasses much more, from sounds to strobes to voice, and beyond.
“Alerting or mass notification or strobes/speakers/audio-visual, that is the output side of the business,” says Todd Rief, president of North America Honeywell Security and Fire, Northford, Conn. “Mass notification is definitely a tailwind for us.” There were a lot of deployments that pre-date the interest in updated communications systems that has taken off in the wake of several mass shooting incidents and increasingly severe weather patterns, he adds. “Voice and intelligibility has become very important. We shouldn’t be talking about a new building today and not having speakers and voice. But we should also be talking computer pop-ups and cellphones and text messages.”
Mass notification is a growing field, Montgomery says. “We have had a lot of success in K-12 and higher education. But where large data centers in the past didn’t use voice, now they are starting to look at it. Mass notification is an upgrade to existing systems. A new facility will definitely want that but there are some retrofit opportunities as well.”
One of the other things driving mass notification is recent changes in the NFPA 72 code. Not only does the code now allow, in certain circumstances, non-listed speakers, but it recently delved deeper into the intelligibility issue, says Richard Roux, senior electrical specialist, NFPA, Quincy, Mass. “There needs to be recognizable, clear speech and there is criteria for that. Not only are you giving a message; it must be intelligible and you need to better engineer the project to make sure of that. The 2016 edition permits the use of non-listed speakers; but it is specific. If you have a project where you have to use listed speakers but can’t achieve the required intelligibility in a particular area, they are allowed.” It also mandates that messages can’t conflict, for example if a fire system is saying to evacuate at the same time as a mass communication system says to shelter in place.
Intelligibility is the reason Advanced launched its Perfect Sync product last year, Troiano says. “Not all buildings require voice systems, but for those that do, what are you trying to accomplish? You want to activate an audio message that is specific. What happens in large areas or intersecting areas if those messages aren’t synchronized? You get confusion.”
When “voice” meant a single large amplifier that wasn’t an issue. But now that newer systems have gone to distributed audio, there can be multiple message generators all playing the same message but out of sync with each other, he explains.
Voice systems are used for much more than just fire now, says Steven Lewis, senior account executive, RFI Enterprises, San Jose, Calif., a Security-Net integrator. “I am seeing more and more interest in it. The message we are putting out there to customers is now we can do public address through the fire and even background music. I am selling more and more notification appliances that don’t even have the word firewritten on the appliance anymore.”
Netland is seeing a definite shift away from horn/strobes of the past to speaker/strobes today. “Our fire alarm systems now extend beyond evacuating the building in the case of fire to handling all kinds of emergency situations. With speakers you can give people more specific information such as ‘seek shelter.’ We also continue to invest in speakers. Parts of the code require high degrees of intelligibility and that has been a big improvement in ensuring that not only are you installing speakers, but ones that occupants can actually hear and understand due to higher quality sound.”
The next step in this digital world is, of course, expanding those messages to cell phones, tablets and more, says Jeff Klein, vice president of marketing for Honeywell Security and Fire North America, Melville, N.Y. “The other trend we are looking at is mobile notification, or having notifications come to people’s mobile devices. There is a recognition that we are now able to communicate in multiple ways and the codes are adapting to the concept that the probability of getting the message out increases with more ways to communicate.”
If You Build It Will They Come?
The eventual outgrowth of technologies such as these panel and notification appliances is something the industry is seeing on the security side: more and more integration and interaction with other systems to provide more value to the customer. But beyond what code will allow (see “The Case for Apps,” page 68), the bigger question is will end users go for it when it comes to a technology that has traditionally been a “grudge purchase?”
“One could technically build a fire system on the IP network and have the panel be in the cloud,” Summers says. “We could do that now, but a lot of people aren’t comfortable with that. I imagine it will go that way some day. It is a chicken and egg situation with codes. We build a technology that is robust enough. They look at it and kick it; then it eventually gets adopted. That is our role.”
Code does not prohibit integration, Roux says. But it may inhibit it. “What NFPA does say is that all the stuff you tie to the fire alarm system must be listed by UL, FM or Intertek. There are some conditions in chapter 21 or 23 that allow for combination systems. You can share wiring or power supplies. The proviso is that if the other systems can possibly impair the operation of the fire alarm system you may not want to do that.”
Many AHJs don’t want to even consider the option. And even if they do, the integration on a practical level of fire with other systems could hinder features of the non-fire system, says J. Matthew Ladd, president, The Protection Bureau, Philadelphia, a Security-Net integrator. “There is integration and there is integration. It is already there with fire and building control, power, HVAC and shutting fans down. But when you start talking integration with security it becomes difficult because there are a lot of code requirements set up regarding fire alarms. Part of the problem is there are features that can be limited by the fire alarm. A basic example is the fire code says you can’t remotely access the programming of these systems. But what is one of the biggest things now with access control? Remote programming. As soon as you make it a fire alarm panel you can’t remotely connect to it.”
One integration that does seem like a logical mix is fire and video, for verification purposes, or even to help first responders get a look at a situation before going in. But many integrators say they have not done much, if any of that type of work. Manufacturers say it can be done easily and some even have special cameras designed for fire.
“We have hyperlinks to most ONVIF security cameras,” Montgomery says. “If a fire is detected you can pull up a live camera. We do have some customers that are definitely using it. We also make a listed smoke and flame detector camera.”
Troiano says a simple integration with video is to have a BMS interface where an output off the fire panel is being picked up on the security system. If a fire relay closes it turns on a camera. “But the reality is if you have a huge system that is a lot of relays,” he says. A better way is to use software techniques or integration platforms that can handle that better, which his company also offers.
Rick Tampier, senior director of sales and product strategy at Red Hawk, thinks fire and video has the most potential of any of the standard integrations. “The cost of cameras has come down tremendously and they are going more and more places. Now we can access video remotely from anywhere in the world on a phone or a laptop. It’s not happening yet but as more of these become available first responders will start taking note of that availability. I was a volunteer firefighter for 15 years and I certainly would have liked to know what was going on before I trudged up those stairs.”
The reality is most manufacturers probably have more features than integrators and end users are taking advantage of, particularly when it comes to fire. “We have historically provided the ability to communicate between systems but we haven’t seen as much pull for customers to do that,” Haynes says. “We have more capability than they are probably using. It is driven by what the market is looking for. But if that changes in the marketplace we are ready to go with that.
“The biggest challenge isn’t access control or video integration, but the concern that we are getting too far ahead of demand. It is not good to develop bells and whistles if no one is ready to buy it.”
Klein is more optimistic. “The industry is changing in general, not just for fire. It is a connected world. The vocabulary is much different than five years ago, with cloud and IP and talk about becoming an ‘agile development company,’ which is software language. The expectations of usability have increased so much more. It is exciting in terms of how we are thinking about the marketplace because it used to be very hardware-centric…. There is the code, the ‘do not touch’ part of fire, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things you can do to take advantage of what you have like video verification or voice communication. It is up to us in the industry to be pushing those ideas and moving them forward and trying to bring the industry along with us.”
The Case for Apps
The most ubiquitous form of communication and notification today is also perhaps under-utilized in the fire alarm world: the app. While many manufacturers have started to provide apps and other software either on the panel or remote for diagnostic or “look-in” purposes, code prohibits changing anything remotely. There are good reasons for this rule, but some manufacturers and integrators see a path that could allow users and integrators to get more out of the fire app experience.
“For us we are trying to stir the pot in fire,” says Potter’s Craig Summers. “The industry doesn’t move fast, but we have a mobile app that allows us to connect all the panels to the cloud and the dealer can now see the whole install base from a single dashboard.”
Fike Corp. has been adding more app-driven features to products to meet expectations, says Kevin Montgomery. “People are used to that on their iPhones and iPads. Even if it is not part of a UL listed fire system they want those technologies so they can take advantage of them, even if it is monitoring only.” End users can view it on a tablet or phone, zoom in and look at enhanced floor plans.
Montgomery says certain clients such as large data centers are really pushing for this type of technology.
J. Matthew Ladd of the Protection Bureau would add other technology-forward industries to that list as well. “The footprint for that is companies like Google and Yahoo and other large corporate campuses where you might have 10 to 15 buildings and they are software experts. These teams of facility people want to be able to see things. They are not working in offices. They are very mobile. It is not widely accepted yet, but I think clients are very interested in it and it is a buzzword that will take a little more time to develop.”
Mike Troiano of Advanced Co. likes the idea of apps, but is taking it slowly. “I am all for doing anything that makes things easier. We have some nice things in the works but the types of things we want to do pretty much have to be done at the panel or PC. Smartphones offer a level of convenience, which is not a bad thing. But I hesitate because it has to be implemented in a way that not just anyone can get to it. I like apps if done right and I want to make sure no one can get into a system and do something they shouldn’t. We are taking a hard look at it.”
Tyco Fire Products’ John Haynes believes app acceptance in fire is just a matter of time. “I have a personal opinion that there is going to be a bit of a generational shift. My college-age daughter’s expectation of what she is doing with her cellphone is very different than mine. They have different ideas about how technology should work and over time I think we will see a migration of the user interface and smartphones and people will expect systems like fire to do a lot of those same things.”
Honeywell Security and Fire joined the app bandwagon with its cloud-based Evance services, which allow a dealer or integrator to connect remotely to see what is going on with a system. But apps as the rest of the world knows them are a different matter, says Samir Jain.
“There are few different ways to characterize the ‘appification’ of a fire alarm system, including whether you can control or just view the status. If you want to view to see if it is functioning correctly or peek in to see what a trouble alarm is, we have offerings that can do that and it is allowable by NFPA. Beyond that, could you control a fire alarm system from a phone app to silence an alarm or do other functions? That is currently not allowable because of safety reasons. And I wouldn’t want someone sitting in a Starbucks remotely disabling a fire alarm system. But could I get past that? Could I use other systems to geolocate me and make sure I am actually on the premise and then enable the app?”
The industry will have to wait and see if and when that will happen.
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