Many people don’t often think about their fire alarms — except when it’s too late. They are pieces of equipment we just assume work equally well and we expect them to function 100 percent of the time. Yet many people may not fully appreciate what happens between the time a fire is detected and the time a first responder shows up on site. Several entities interact with that fire alarm signal, and the sunsetting of existing technologies has the potential to disrupt fire alarm signals between commercial buildings, central monitoring stations (CMSs) and ultimately, local first responders across the United States.

As telecom carriers rapidly retire the nation’s copper wire-based phone systems, and legacy cellular networks are supplanted by higher-speed 4G and 5G services, we are overlooking the severity of a new situation: fire alarms that run on legacy systems may not be able to alert first responders, potentially putting buildings and lives at risk.

As telecoms phase out legacy technology this year, fire alarm panels — in everything from schools to malls, stadiums to retail — that utilize these legacy networks must be updated or replaced, or they won’t be able to alert the monitoring station when a fire is detected within the building. Even more concerning: building owners and occupants may not know there’s a problem until it’s too late.

Amid these changes, building owners and managers — and the alarm system professionals who serve them — should double-check fire alarm connectivity to avoid putting occupants and assets at risk.

Land Lines Losing Ground

Plain old telephone service (POTS) lines are ubiquitous throughout the nation’s landscape, but due to their dwindling use and rapidly increasing maintenance costs, the FCC no longer requires telecom companies to maintain these lines. Yet, many commercial buildings in the U.S. still rely on a POTS line for their life safety equipment to communicate with the local monitoring station. Additionally, building owners may not realize certain changes may need to be made to their fire panels when switching from POTS to popular alternatives like Voice Over IP (VoIP).

In February, a disastrous fire broke out after hours in Richmond, Va., at William Fox Elementary School, destroying the building before firefighters could respond. The school’s local fire alarm sounded, but no alarm signal reached the CMS because the building’s fire panel had not been updated to support the 10-digit dial (including area code) — a phone line-related change required by the FCC. Fortunately, no one was harmed in this disaster, but the scenario has the potential to arise more frequently in buildings with older equipment that has not been updated to interface with new telecom networks and FCC requirements.   

3G Sunsetting Poses Other Risks

AT&T discontinued its 3G cellular service in February, and T-Mobile’s Sprint and T-Mobile followed suit in June and July, respectively. Verizon’s 3G shutdown, currently in progress, will conclude by December 31. This phaseout also poses a public safety issue as some U.S. commercial buildings’ fire alarm panels still rely on 3G to communicate with a CMS and will be unsupported once the technology is shut off.

The criticality to the alarm industry did not go unnoticed — the alarm industry association pressured the FCC, AT&T and T-Mobile, which resulted in a brokered deal that enables AT&T 3G units to roam on T-Mobile for some alarm companies. This is only a temporary solution and merely provides several months of relief. It also shows that despite months and years of advance notice, many in the industry chose to wait until the moment of shutdown to act. With today’s supply chain delays, it is a dangerous game to wait until the last possible minute to order replacement equipment because it may not be available on demand.

How Buildings Can Stay Safe and Compliant 

A dual path of communication using local Internet connection (Wi-Fi) as the primary mode and a cellular device as backup in case the Internet goes down (or vice versa) offers maximum reliability. Building owners and operators must make sure that their building has proper technology deployed so critical alarms continue to reach CMSs.

Without upgrading how a fire alarm communicates, i.e., “dials” the CMS, many buildings will have no choice but to implement a costly service called fire watch. Fire watch is continuous surveillance of a building by one or more qualified individuals to identify and control fire hazards, detect early signs of fire, activate an alarm and notify the fire department. A fire watch service can typically cost about $50-$100 per hour or more, per person — a cost that adds up quickly and makes this an expensive alternative for building owners.

The phasing out of both POTS and 3G will ultimately usher in a new era of digitized fire alarms, and even deep signal penetration into a building when leveraging 5G technology. In the meantime, though, it may leave many emergency alert systems unsupported. Building owners and managers need to partner with their fire alarm service provider, put in a cost-effective upgrade and perform an end-to-end test with the CMS while there is still time. When it comes to fire and life safety technology you don’t want to find out it doesn’t work when it’s too late.