Incorporating Mass Notification Into New Fire Alarm Systems

Institutions looking to upgrade their fire alarm systems should be certain their old and new equipment can communicate with each other. New solutions should also include an audio component so campus officials can convey important public safety information to building occupants.

Even during tough economic times, campuses seem to always be expanding, and this new construction often includes the installation of fire alarm systems that have come on the market recently. Those systems usually can identify a whole host of issues: from smoke detector activations to water flow from sprinklers. They can also pinpoint the location of an alarm, which is a particularly handy feature in a large facility.

But in addition to new construction and the latest technology that goes with it, most campuses also have buildings that were erected years earlier. Back then, fire alarm systems on the market didn’t provide very much information about the cause of an alarm. Also, the systems consisted of horns and strobes that communicated only one thing: “Everyone in the building must evacuate.”

“If you had talked to most school folks 15 years ago, they would have never thought they needed a procedure to lockdown a school,” says Greg Jakubowski, who is principal and chief engineer for Fire Planning Associates. “But now after these school shootings and other events, folks realize they need a procedure to lockdown the building. That requires a different type of alarm than the fire alarm box with all of the horns and strobes going off, which was all the systems were capable of doing when they were designed 20 years ago.”

Additionally, fire systems were installed on a piecemeal basis, and the equipment – often from different manufacturers – didn’t communicate with each other. 

So how should university, school and hospital officials go about integrating their old fire alarm systems with their new ones so they can talk to each other? CS interviewed some of today’s top fire protection professionals for their sage advice on how institutions can tackle this troubling issue.

Combo Systems Cost Less, Provide Limited Data

Some campuses may choose to have minimal system interoperability. In these cases, probably the easiest and least expensive way of upgrading fire alarm equipment is to adopt a combined reporting solution that allows all brands of fire alarm systems to report basic fire alarm data, says Hughes Associates Inc.‘s Senior Engineer Michael J. Madden.

“A lot of campuses are just concerned about monitoring the fire alarm systems but not having a whole lot of interoperability between them,” he says. “In those instances, it’s not that big of an issue if you have fire alarm systems from different manufacturers because all of them have a method of sending a signal out to a receiving station.”

The downside of this type of solution, however, is that it doesn’t identify the specific type of problem that is causing the alarm, nor does it provide zones so the problem can be quickly located by first responders. Fortunately, campuses that wish to address these challenges and improve system interoperability have several options.

“There are proprietary systems out there where a manufacturer provides a whole suite of systems that can communicate with each other and take the place of each other in case there is a problem with the panels,” says J. Madden. “Certainly, there are a lot of advantages if a campus wants to lock itself into a single manufacturer and convert older panels to that manufacturer.”

Other advantages of proprietary systems and some third-party systems is that they can take in and process more information. The cost of training and upkeep can also be less expensive.

“It’s always best to standardize on a single line of equipment,” says Security Sales & Integration magazine Technical Writer Al Colombo. “Not only does this make service and maintenance easier and less costly, it also means that you only have to train personnel once, not a zillion times.”

J. Madden, however, offers a word of caution: “Sometimes you can set up future terms or purchasing arrangements. But then again, some manufacturers, once they sell you a system and put all of their equipment in, think they’ve got you over a barrel.”

For campuses that have many fire alarm systems from many different manufacturers, he recommends third-party network solutions as opposed to proprietary ones. That way, not every panel needs to be replaced during an upgrade.

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Incorporate Audio Into New Fire Solutions

Most fire experts recommend campuses also include voice evacuation in their new fire alarm systems to provide mass notification capabilities.

“There is a movement to change all of the individual buildings into a voice-type system that can be managed individually,” says Cooper Notification Vice President of Marketing Ted Millburn. “It could be through the fire alarm system, or it could be a standalone solution involved with voice evacuation.”

The reasons for including a voice component are fairly straightforward: it’s no longer appropriate for a fire alarm system to only set off strobes and sirens indicating people in a building should evacuate. Now, these systems must be able to direct building occupants on what to do and where to go during a multitude of potential emergencies.

For example, during an active shooter incident, campus officials might need to tell occupants to shelter in place. For a tornado, the verbal instructions might be for students, staff, patients and visitors to move away from windows and into the building’s interior or basement. Additionally, instructions might vary from building to building.

About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray
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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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