Illustration: Ron Rennells
Tying any type of building system in with a facility's fire alarm system was considered almost taboo by fire alarm inspectors as little as 10 years ago, and the technology to tie such systems together was either too costly or too difficult to put in place.
Today's integration capabilities are much broader, more economical and less cumbersome for system designers, plus easier-to-use for security and facility managers. These potential features and benefits have lead to an upsurge in fire alarm integration, particularly in large healthcare and educational complexes.
Making First Responders' Jobs Easier Is Top Goal
When a major East Coast hospital specializing in the health of women and infants recently added a new wing, integration was a primary element of its design. This integration went well beyond some of the common concepts of video working with access control or the like.
This system tied in everything from access control to fire detection, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and elevators, lighting and security systems. If smoke is detected on a floor, the HVAC kicks-in to mitigate smoke. When a fire alarm sounds, doors in certain areas open, while those in other areas remain closed.
"The main concern was safety of the newborns — they didn't want anybody to pull a pull station and leave with a baby," says Rick Silva of Fire Suppression Systems Group in Pawtucket, R.I., a Gamewell-FCI Engineered Systems Distributor (ESD).
For this hospital project, the big driver was to make facility and security management's job easier, says Paul Clement with Cintas Fire Protection in Pawtucket, R.I., and the primary life safety integration company on this job.
"Ease. Ease in knowing that there's an alarm, seeing it actually working," says Clement. "They know doors will open, or won't open, specifically to each area — it's site-specific."
Integration addresses key challenges that security officials in any campus — healthcare, college, business park or other — have to deal with, suggests Herb Farnsworth with TED Systems LLC in Shawnee, Kansas.
"The common problem is you have multiple people in multiple buildings not being able to control egress and access, and communicate with them as easily as you could in one building," claims Farnsworth. "With proper planning, a very tight integration of multiple functions makes sense."
The overarching benefit of integration is pulling in every available bit of data so that when an emergency notification occurs, security officials at the scene and responding police, fire, ambulance and others can have the greatest amount of information possible.
"Disparate systems with overlaps or gaps that exist in various locations and require different operating procedures via various hardware devices cause confusion and delay," says Farnsworth. "Confusion and delay increase risk. In the event of an emergency, having all the information in one place to evaluate the risk and execute the best plans quickly is key."
For example, if a pull station sets off a fire alarm, in an integrated system cameras will immediately call up images from that area, smoke-detection units from that spot will report their findings and security officials can immediately assess whether there's an actual emergency or if it's a false alarm.
Farnsworth says he sees value in tying in as many systems as possible — video, access control, intrusion alert, HVAC, fire suppression monitoring, and anything that involves a critical alarm, from water alerts in the floor of a data center to high-temperature alarms in critical parts of a facility.
"Anything that is of critical nature, which is going to protect the assets of the building and people inside" should be tied in, he says.
Open Systems Make Integration Easier
Most of the integrators interviewed claim to be seeing a rising number of integration-heavy projects. One technology enabler noted is the increasing sophistication of software.
Microsoft makes a package that allows company officials to enter employee data into one department's system, such as human resources, and use that data to populate other systems, such as access control and visitor management, Farnsworth explains. Moreover, building management systems (BMS) software that can connect and control a variety of systems, including HVAC, access control, video and fire protection, is becoming more versatile and user-friendly.