Easier Management Is a Hallmark of Today’s Fire Alarm Panels
From touchscreen displays to mobile setup and cloud, the aim of the latest fire alarm panel technology is to make them easier to install, program and use.
Today’s security and life safety technologies are heavily influenced by the technology advancements and conveniences end users have come to expect in their daily lives. While fire alarm control panels (and fire alarm systems overall) are mandated by code, that doesn’t mean customers don’t want some of the latest features. Fire alarm panel manufacturers have delivered, with new ways of networking and communicating that make things easier for both the end user and the integrator or dealer.
“Users of fire alarm control panels want more transparency and easier management of their life safety systems,” says Dan Corbett, senior sales application specialist, NOTIFIER by Honeywell, Atlanta. “This is driving a trend toward connectivity — not just in the fire industry and fire alarm control panels, but the entire building is more connected. Customers want the ability to connect their systems to the cloud and enable end users and installers to receive information remotely.”
Along with that connectivity, he adds, customers want more intuitive hardware displays that improve the experience for everyone that may need to interact with that display, from the installer to the end user, and eventually the first responder.
“The human interface of today’s fire alarm control panels is moving away from the discreet switches and fixed labels to full color touchscreen displays that can easily be configured and reconfigured for ease of operation and clarity of information displayed,” agrees Wayne Oliver, vice president of sales and marketing, Hochiki America Corporation, Buena Park, Calif. “Today’s fire alarm systems are becoming more involved with the building’s systems and require easy to understand and operate human interfaces.”
This is why companies such as Hochiki, Honeywell and others have recently released panels that feature color and touchscreen panels that are much more intuitive and user friendly.
“We’re inspired by the electronics we all use every day like our mobile phones or tablets, and we’ve created an intuitive user interface via touchscreen display that anyone can easily use,” Corbett describes.
Other notable advancements for fire alarm panels include IP networking, mobile apps that ease setup and provide alerts, and changes to communication pathways that can increase dealers’ and integrators’ sales as well as provide RMR.
Networking & Connectivity
As many things in the building — including security and life safety technologies — become part of the networking backbone, that opens up possibilities for fire alarm control panels to be a more integral part of the overall ecosystem.
Fire alarm manufacturers are increasingly using Ethernet networks to add value and provide easier ways to interact and manage the building fire alarm system, says Craig Summers, vice president of sales, fire and security division, Potter Electric Signal Company LLC, St. Louis. “All Potter addressable systems are IP-enabled with a built-in Ethernet port in the panel. This allows the installer to program it much more quickly with readily available network patch cords. The Ethernet port is also used for panels to send email notification of events, diagnostic information and inspection reminders.”
This also allows the fire alarm system to more easily share information with other IP-enabled building systems and software, such as facility management and graphical user interface software, he adds.
“Fire alarm systems are increasingly being required to adapt to changing requirements driven by increased urbanization and the resulting focus on multi-use spaces,” says Wally Ortiz, product manager-controls, Edwards Safety, part of Carrier’s fire and security business, Bradenton, Fla. “The building industry uses a multitude of designs and facility or campus layouts, requiring more advanced networking designs.”
Schools and hospitals are other verticals that are really benefitting from the networking of fire alarm technology, says Peter Ebersold, senior product manager-Simplex, Johnson Controls, Milwaukee. “An ongoing trend related to fire alarm control panels is around the increased usage of networks. For instance, schools and hospitals typically install a number of fire alarm control panels throughout their buildings for distributed access or survivability. In these cases the [panels] can be networked together in a similar way to computers in an office environment. Advantages include higher networking speeds and different topologies to connect panels, which gives building owners more flexibility on where to install and interconnect panels.”
Along with this trend is the increased use of mobile apps to set up and manage these panels. Simplex has a new mobile client that makes networking monitoring and management easier and can be done on a mobile device single console, Ebersold says. “Advanced diagnostic tools ensure fast installations, easy commissioning and quick, efficient pinpointing of network performance and connection issues.”
Corbett adds, “Remote connection helps to make service calls more efficient — with remote access to see a system status and its diagnostics, a technician can better prepare for the service call, as knowing the exact trouble conditions ensures that they have the correct parts and tools in hand when they arrive. It will also better prepare or inform business partners and let them know if there is an issue or just the need for a regular maintenance call. Arming technicians with this information and log of system history creates a more efficient and better protected facility.”
Hochiki’s latest panel series includes an app for installers. “The systems integrators told us that they wanted easy-to-program systems that could do all the requirements — from selective evacuation to fan control operations without requiring a Ph.D. in programming technology,” Oliver says.
The cloud is also helping with setup, says Judith Jones-Shand, vice president of marketing, NAPCO Security Technologies Inc., Amityville, N.Y. “Cloud programming is easier to do and learn. Menu-driven programming enables the dealer to program a panel more quickly and without requiring extensive training or a bulky computer to do so. It’s really the shape of things to come. We all do it intuitively on our smartphones.”
End users, too, are asking for mobile connectivity to fire and life safety systems, Corbett adds. “We are accustomed to having information pushed to our devices and building management platforms allow building owners this level of visibility to their systems from any location. Though owners cannot control their full fire and life safety systems remotely, mobile connectivity tools … provide insight into building activity, allowing them to anticipate an issue or proactively avoid a nuisance alarm.”
Communicating is central to any fire alarm system. In addition to the increased ability to communicate with other building systems, other technology advancements are changing how the system communicates with emergency response to police, fire and central stations, as well as within the building itself.
One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the demise of POTS (plain old telephone service) as a communication method and the rise of cellular.
“One of the trends that has been on a steady climb for some time is the realization that the industry demands an alternate path to deliver signals to a central monitoring station,” says Daniel Rosales, senior director, technical services, Telguard, Atlanta. “Cellular transmission has been the primarily chosen technology to replace POTS as a communication path. Since its introduction as a viable technology, it has been gaining ground and has being doing so at a much faster rate in the past few years.”
There are many reasons for this, including a more favorable outlook on alternative communication paths by code-making bodies and AHJs. Another is because it is easier for the security dealer and integrator.
“Cellular technology integration, for example including cellular technology onboard our fire alarm panel … saves a dealer equipment costs and labor,” Jones-Shand says. “By integrating the cellular communicator, LCD annunciator, horn strobe sync module and a good deal of auxiliary power, the dealer has less equipment and modules to buy, install, wire and get matched compliances for to provide the AHJ for approval.”
Another benefit is financial gain, Rosales explains. “As a dealer providing a cellular communication path, you can offer a service that replaces POTS and therefore transfers recurring revenue for that communication path away from the telephone company and into the dealer’s pocket as a reseller of the cellular service.”
Jones-Shand agrees. “By upgrading or taking over existing fire accounts to cellular service, and/or integrating cellular reporting in new installations, dealers provide a new billable cellular service to accounts (effectively replacing the phone company’s leased landlines). And while saving them thousands of dollars annually over POTS, they are most importantly providing superior, more dependable, faster alarm reporting, which can translate into the precious seconds that can help responders save lives.”
Another communication change is also a growing opportunity for security dealers and integrators.
“Emergency responder radio communications systems are addressed in all of the latest versions of NFPA and IBC/IFC codes,” Summers says. “These systems are basically a panel and series of antennas that amplify the radio frequencies that first responders use for communication … These systems in the past have been installed by radio contractors, but due to the fact that they are now addressed and required by building and fire codes, more and more fire alarm contractors are being requested to supply these along with the fire alarm system.”
Corbett adds, “When first responders enter a facility, whether for a fire, medical emergency or other type of event, they need to be connected, as the lives of the occupants and first responders depend on it. An emergency responder radio enhancement system, or Bi-Directional Amplifier (BDA) can be installed to ensure that first responders have proper radio coverage, as these systems boost the incoming and ongoing emergency radio communications for the specific frequencies of the municipality.”
Of course, none of these solutions can happen without checking what the local code allows and authorities having jurisdiction will accept. However, those, too, are advancing (See “Code Changes Make Technology Adoption Easier” on page 57), so knowing what is possible will go a long way in designing and installing a system that will satisfy everyone.
“Great life safety practices start with knowledge,” Corbett says. “The more that dealers and integrators institute best practices and understand both code compliances and the local standards, the more likely they are to install safer systems.”