Code Red

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor July 1, 2006

Full integration of fire alarm and IT systems hasn’t yet happened, but networking capabilities have advanced, with open systems that use an intranet as a communication path.

CSE: What’s the latest and greatest in the world of fire alarms and related equipment?

WEAVER: Well, for one thing, the tough new 9th Edition of UL Standard 864 is certainly still big news. All manufacturers must test their products to this standard to meet local codes requiring UL-listed products. Originally scheduled to go into effect last October, there have been two extensions to accommodate the sizeable amount of redesign and testing with which most manufacturers are finding necessary to comply. But the outcome is clear—a number of products currently being specified will be obsolete by Dec. 31, 2006, the current effective date of the new standard.

Our approach to meeting this design challenge was not reworking outdated fire alarm control technology, but rather creating a completely new platform. Although only on the market a few months, interest is high, especially among specifiers who want a product that they feel will meet today’s—and tomorrow’s—requirements, and offer a good value throughout the life of the building.

SCHMID: Other advancements are occurring in the realm of smoke detection. Smoke detectors are a lot less prone to false alarms, in part, due to more advanced detection technology and software. For example, spot laser detectors, when combined with advanced software algorithms, allow for very stable performance—even at much higher sensitivity levels than traditional smoke detectors.

AMAR: Yet another area is the development of nonproprietary systems with open architecture: in other words, reliable networking of systems using an intranet as a communication path.

CSE: Speaking of networking, how extensive is integration of fire protection, security and IT systems at this point? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such integration?

AMAR: We’re not seeing full integration of fire alarm and IT systems per se, but we are seeing utilization of IT communication paths to transmit fire alarm signals. For example, we recently designed a fire alarm central monitoring upgrade for a client with multiple campus-style facilities. The equipment selected was capable of interfacing with that of several manufacturers but can still read discrete alarm points—including addressable panels—at the site’s central monitoring workstation, which uses a graphical user interface. The unique design of this system is that signals are transmitted to the company’s central communication center from the various campus workstations via the intranet system.

Although the system recently received UL listing for communications through the intranet, the local AHJ had concerns regarding system reliability. However, once the AHJ was convinced that the intranet provided secure, redundant and reliable communications among all company facilities, and that it is very fault tolerant, the system was approved.

EBERSOLD: The integration of fire and security systems is something that has been developing for a number of years. However, in our experience, it’s not happening across the board. On large installations, the integration of fire, security and building automation can be the key to winning large, complex projects such as a high-rise, college campus or manufacturing facilities. However, for the majority of fire alarm system installations, integration with security or IT systems is not being done. The fire alarm system is installed stand-alone. What is becoming much more common is the integration of the fire alarm system with some type of voice evacuation or emergency notification system.

WEAVER: But clearly, the underlying integrated circuit, microprocessor and communication technologies linking these areas are converging. For example, we’ve moved to using 32-bit RISC processors in our panels. Not only is this a boon to meeting the faster response time requirements of UL 864, it also affords the use of advanced software platforms that communicate more easily between devices. Consequently, this increased flexibility enables better communication integration. Also, by developing graphic workstations and sophisticated smoke control capability, this further enables various panels and related peripherals to work in synergy.

At the same, the fire alarm industry at large has a reputation for being conservative. For one thing, fire service authorities like to think of a fire alarm system as a robust and survivable life-safety apparatus, unencumbered by and isolated from the possible failure of other systems. Consequently, it will take some time before we see complete integration.

SCHMID: Integration of fire alarm, security and IT is certainly not as prevalent as current marketing would have you believe. In fact, there is still a significant amount of anxiety on the part of the fire protection and code enforcement community over full system integration. Some of this anxiety is due to listing restrictions, compatibility of software, system hierarchy and the need to restrict unauthorized user access.

But without a doubt, there would be obvious economic benefits to integration of fire, security and IT systems, including shared infrastructure and integration of user interfaces.

CSE: Has the stringent UL and FM testing required of fire protection systems made it difficult to integrate such products with security systems? If so, is this issue currently being addressed?

WEAVER: This really gets to the heart of the matter. Stringent design and testing requirements make fire alarms more robust and survivable than most other types of security systems. This could, I believe, drive some manufacturers, who now carry fire alarms as a supplement to their security line, out of the fire panel business, as the added cost of exhaustive testing and high-reliability components are making it more difficult to compete in the fire panel market.

EBERSOLD: Integrating the fire alarm system with security has not made it difficult to develop new products. As long as the engineering team prioritizes the reliability of the fire alarm system as the most critical aspect of the product development, it is easy to add the hardware or software to support security integration without compromising the functionality of the life safety system.

AMAR: Fire alarm systems and components must be UL-listed, both individually and cross-listed collectively. Although many proprietary manufacturers of security and energy-management systems have been the most actively involved, they typically include fire alarm systems in order to offer a total package. Although a certain level of system integration is required—smoke control, life safety/security—most AHJs still do not allow fully integrated systems. The AHJ must be completely confident that all fire alarm/life safety functions take full precedent over other security and energy management systems and functions.

SCHMID: Most major fire alarm manufacturers have developed listed equipment and software that allow fire alarm systems to share equipment in larger building networks. Also, the current language in NFPA 72 is flexible enough to allow system integration and new materials and methods, but there are several high-level restrictions that are designed to maintain the functionality and priority of fire alarm system signals in the event that another system fails.

CSE: What kinds of recent changes have been made to NFPA codes or any other relevant standards affecting the specification of fire alarms?

WEAVER: The most far-reaching change to NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm Code —now set for a 2007 edition—may be the inclusion of Annex G covering the application, installation, location, performance and maintenance of mass notification systems (MNS). As an annex, it recommends design guidelines but does not prescribe them. Much of the MNS language comes from U.S. Dept. of Defense documents on anti-terrorism standards for DOD buildings. The goal is to alert people of emergencies like terrorist attacks, biological or chemical hazards, natural disasters and the like. For the first time ever, the code proposes that the operation of the MNS take precedent over the fire alarm signal. For example, in the case of a chemical threat, it may better to keep people inside a building, not evacuate it.

Other significant changes to NFPA 72 include modifications to language on smoke detector spacing to reflect increasing acceptance of performance-based design and new attention to notification appliances like directional sound exit signs, tactile appliances, colored visible signaling and reduced horn dB levels to align with ADA and OSHA. In total, NFPA technical committees processed over 700 proposals for this latest edition.

SCHMID: Although not a recent change, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) continue to have a dramatic impact on fire alarm system design and specification. In fact, compliance with ADAAG has generated a completely new generation of visual notification appliances. And the need for these appliances in public buildings spawned a need for other products, such as auxiliary power supplies. The ADAAG and the need for enhanced visual notification is probably the biggest regulatory boom for the fire alarm industry since residential smoke alarms.

CSE: What kinds of innovations are you seeing in the fire alarm design software market?

SCHMID: Improvements in user interfaces such as annunciators and network control centers are occurring, and displays are becoming larger and easier to use. As mentioned before, we are also beginning to see graphical touch-screen interfaces marketed as a simple way for responding firefighters to navigate complex fire alarm systems.

EBERSOLD: I would say that ease of use is the most important innovation in fire alarm systems. While installation is still done by the authorized distributor using National Institute for Certification in Engineering (NICET)-certified technicians and programmers, more end users would like to better understand what the fire alarm is telling them. The days of cryptic messages on a fire alarm display or annunciator are numbered. For example, products with a touch-screen panel give firefighters and end users easy-to-understand information about the origin of alarms when they were activated. In fact, the technology is so user-friendly that no training is required.

WEAVER: Because the newer fire alarm control panels use fewer, multi-function integrated circuits, there is a distinct movement toward more sophisticated firmware and system programming software. For example, our system configuration tool uses conditional action maps (CAMs) and Boolean logic to give maximum flexibility to the designer. Yet another specifying tool employs CSI MasterFormat.

On the horizon are CAD programs designed specifically with fire alarms in mind, as well as software that ties together data on system components, circuits and risers, calculations and other essential details. Output will support project management from the creation of client presentations to reports and working drawings.

CSE: Looking 10, 20 years down the road, how do you anticipate fire alarm technology will evolve?

AMAR: I think we’ll see full open-architecture networks and new forms of communication paths.

EBERSOLD: My prediction is we’ll see wireless signaling line circuits or notification application circuits and panels that are completely PC-based.

SCHMID: More emphasis will probably be placed on systems that provide real-time, useful information to building occupants, not just during a fire event, but during any emergency event. The increased use of voice-based fire alarm systems and directional sound equipment will likely follow this trend.

WEAVER: The trend is definitely toward more sophistication, design flexibility and integrated circuitry. This has already meant a shift in our technical training to emphasize software programming skills for our network of independent distributors. This has also raised the bar on education level of employees. In similar vein, one of the recognized constraints to growth in the future will be the available pool of qualified, trained personnel serving the fire alarm industry.

(In June, CSE aired a webcast– Critical Changes to Fire Code –in which a panel of experts discussed the significant changes to the 2007 edition of NFPA 72, The National Fire Alarm Code, that were approved in last month.)


Michael A. Amar , Principal, Gage-Babcock & Assocs., Los Angeles

Peter Ebersold , Director of Marketing, Notifier, Northford, Conn.

Ray Schmid , P.E. Principal, Koffell Associates, Ellicott City, Md.

John Weaver , Director of Marketing, Gamewell-FCI, Northford, Conn.

Fire Protection Engineer is a “Hot Job”

Fire protection engineering is among the highest paid engineering jobs, according to a survey by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. In fact, says the report, the job market for fire protection engineers has remained strong for years due to the disparity between the large number of job openings and relatively small pool of potential employees.

Fire protection engineering is a unique profession that uses science and technology to make our world safer from the destructive impacts of fire, say SFPE officials.

“Conservatively, we estimate that five positions are available per graduate,” says Professor Marino di Marzo, chairman of the University of Maryland’s Fire Protection Engineering Department. “Last January, we had one graduate receive seven job offers.”

According to the SPFE survey, the median income for an entry-level fire protection engineer (with zero to two years of experience) is $55,500 per year. That figure jumps to $65,000 when a person with that level of experience has a master’s degree.

The median income for a mid-level fire protection engineer (with six to eight years of experience) is $72,500 per year. However, the salary figure can approach $100,000 per year if he or she has a master’s degree.