FOR MORE THAN A HALF CENTURY, fire alarm control panels (FACPs) have used indicating device circuits (IDCs) to channel alarm and supervisory signals from traditional heat/smoke detectors, carbon monoxide (CO) sensors, water level indicators, temperature sensors and other devices.
To do this, supervised normally open contacts within these panels monitor all aspects of the environment through attached devices. Called a conventional FACP, this type of fire panel is still in use today, but is quickly giving way to two additional types of FACPs that are designed to assign a unique identifier to each and every device monitored. One of them uses wireless radio technology and the other a data-oriented, cabled technology.
“Wireless excels in the areas of retrofit and temporary deployment,” says Laurie E. Elsner, vice president of product development, Mircom Group of Companies, Vaughan, Ontario. “It also can be used to supplement an already existing system to enhance notification.
A second trend in the life safety industry is the inclusion of multiple-criteria sensors within a single detector that provides several kinds of environmental data. When analyzed together, this approach allows a smart FACP to determine the difference between an actual fire and what may appear to be, but isn’t.
A third trend — which began many years ago — involves the use of cellular as a primary path to a central or supervising station with IP/internet as a secondary path.
“The sole path option that cellular service provides is no longer a novelty but something that is sought after as a preferred communication option,” says Daniel Rosales, senior director of technical services with Telguard, Atlanta. “This trend has been building for the past few years.”
These trends should be of interest to fire protection companies as well as security integrators and alarm dealers. Here we discuss the technologies as well as some of the fail-safes built into them in order to get a clearer picture of the various options available as well as reasons why these new trends are becoming even more popular among life safety professionals.
Moving From Conventional to Addressable
Low-voltage companies that sell, install and service fire alarm systems often think in terms of wired solutions that utilize IDCs, often referred to as zones. Today, a zone is largely a physical portion of a facility protected from smoke, the heat of a fire, carbon monoxide and other life threatening conditions by specific devices that connect to a conventional FACP.
Although conventional FACPs do an adequate job of detecting, notifying and integrating with a variety of critical building subsystems for greater fire control, they have inherent limitations. For example, one of the most significant drawbacks to IDC-based panels is the fact that, under normal conditions, there’s no way to determine the exact detector that has gone into an alarm.
“I’m hearing more and more that AHJs are not allowing conventional fire alarm installs,” says John Larkin, senior partner with Electronic Systems Consultants, Columbus, Ohio. “You have a ton of advantages with an installed addressable system, such as known device location issues, more options with programming matrix, etc.”
To identify a specific device equates to knowing the exact location within a facility where there’s a potential fire. The only way to do this is to use an addressable FACP or one that uses wireless devices. Then either way, each and every device becomes a uniquely addressed point in a fire alarm system. And before firefighters arrive, they can know exactly where they’re headed inside the facility, enabling them to hit the ground running.
“You have the exact location of the initiating alarm, and in a large facility, that can save lots of time and money,” says Mark Hillenburg, vice president of marketing, Digital Monitoring Products (DMP), Springfield, Mo. “For example, in the recent fire that destroyed Notre Dame in Paris, the original alarm was mapped and reported from the wrong building so the on-site response investigated the wrong building on the complex. By the time the error was understood, the attic area of the cathedral was too far involved.
There are other benefits to using addressable technology in life safety systems. One very important one is the multitude of data that many addressable devices can transmit to the FACP, such as the immediate sensitivity level of each and every addressable smoke detector in real time; the sequence of activation among detectors/sensors; the transmission and analysis of simultaneous sensor readings when multiple-criteria detectors are employed; information on the general health of each device; and more.
Wireless Fire Detection in Commercial Work
The inclusion of wireless radio technology in the area of fire detection has been around for a number of decades, though mostly in the residential arena.
“There are applications where running wire is extremely difficult or cost prohibitive,” says Craig Summers, vice president of sales, fire and security, Potter Electric Signal Co., St. Louis. “A good example would be a damaged underground conduit going to a PIV valve. Trenching and repairing the conduit for repair would be many times over more expensive than our wireless system.
Because of today’s stringent fire codes, such as UL864 10th Edition, wireless fire detection has become serious business. Whereas in the past wireless fire detection was marginally implemented by one or two specialty manufacturers, today the number of manufacturers with code-compliant wireless is on the rise.
In order to receive a proper listing from a third-party testing service, such as UL, a wireless device like a smoke detector must meet the requirements set forth in several sections of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, 2016 Edition as well as UL268, 7th Edition.
Here are some of the conditions set forth in Section 23.16, NFPA 72, as it pertains to FACPs and the detection devices employed:
- The transmitter within a wireless detector or sensor must be given a unique identification number so the wireless FACP can distinguish them from another.
- Dry cell batteries are permitted, but must be capable of sustaining operations of the detector/sensor for one year before reaching depletion threshold.
- When said battery reaches its depletion threshold, it must still contain enough power to transmit wireless supervisory signals followed by a single non-trouble response.
- The wireless FACP must be capable of distinguishing between a trouble signal from said transmitter and that of alarm, supervisory, tampers and other trouble signals.
- The FACP must be able to visibly identify the affected transmitter and, when silenced, effectively re-sound a minimum of once every four hours.
- If the connection between the dry cell battery in a device transmitter is severed or shorted, the FACP must be capable of detecting the event. When the trouble alert is silenced, it must re-sound locally at least one time every four hours until the situation is remedied.
“UL 268, 7th Edition (effective June 30, 2021) ushers in several significant changes to what will be expected of commercial smoke detectors — smoke detectors that are engineered to alarm faster and with greater accuracy while still reducing cooking nuisance alarms [and] next-generation sensors that conform to the smoke profiles from fires of new building materials,” says Jon Hughes, vice president, marketing and product strategy, Kidde Fire Systems, Ashland, Mass. “Smoke detectors certified to UL 268 7th Edition will also have to meet the technical challenges of UL’s new flaming and smoldering polyurethane fire tests.”
Trends in Wireless Signal Transport
There was a day when ordinary POTS provided all the connection needed to get alarm signals through to a central or supervisory station. Two lines are typically required, or one POTS line with another code-compliant form of communication, such as cellular or TCP/IP.
Over time, many of the companies that provided POTS service discovered that there is more money in cellular communication. Therefore, POTS has floundered to the point where its dependability is often in question, not to mention the relatively high price tag that POTS now brings with it in commercial work.
“As POTS lines continue vanishing, millions of fire alarm control panels nationwide are in jeopardy of failing to communicate in an emergency,” says Judy Jones-Shand, vice president marketing, Napco Security Technologies, Amityville, N.Y. “That puts the end user, property and premises in jeopardy of falling unprotected. Today’s cellular communicators represent an ideal economical sunset solution to both safeguard accounts and alarm companies.”
The NAPCO brand of sole-path UL-Listed cellular offers four supervised inputs, two form C relay outputs, two modular plugs for network connections and more. StarLink Fire operates over AT&T LTE or Verizon LTE.
Another alternative includes private networks that feature mesh radio communications, such as AES’s IntelliNet. “AES delivers the same signals to a central station as a POTS line, a cellular communicator or an IP connection,” says Jim Burditt, vice president of sales and marketing, AES Corporation, Peabody, Mass. “AES products allow businesses the opportunity to create their own communication network. It’s not for everyone. It requires management and maintenance similar to that of an IT network, with individuals who are responsible for the network health.”
The bottom line is when it comes to code-compliant fire detection, you must have a multitude of things right in order to be successful. This is exactly why it’s so important to use only third-party-tested and -listed panels and detection devices. This is accomplished by understanding the various codes and standards put forth by organizations, such as NFPA, UL and the International Code Council (ICC).