How new fire alarm system technologies are advancing safety

With a focus on improving safety, efficiency and adaptability, innovations in fire alarm systems are a remarkable leap forward in safeguarding lives and property

By Jarron Gass and Cristina Aragon-Vandenbent March 14, 2024
Cellular communication allows for reliable connectivity, even in difficult locations, providing convenient solutions to challenging conditions. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Fire alarm insights

  • Recent advancements in fire alarm systems not only enhance the accuracy of fire detection, but also enable more efficient emergency responses.
  • Wireless technologies like mesh networking, low-power wireless tech and 5G networks, are improving reliability, scalability and response times in fire alarm systems.

The built environment is undergoing a transformative phase in fire safety with the onset of new technologies in fire alarm systems. Recognizing the imperative nature of these systems, recent advancements are tailored to enhance not only the accuracy of fire detection, but also the speed and effectiveness of emergency responses, with the overall goal of preserving life and protecting property.

Smart detection systems

Smart detection systems represent a significant advancement in fire alarm technology, incorporating advanced sensors and intelligent algorithms to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of fire detection. These systems use cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, to distinguish between real threats and false alarms, which helps to provide more reliable and responsive solutions.

Smart detection systems often use multisensor technology, integrating different types of sensors such as smoke, heat and gas detectors. This approach allows the system to analyze multiple environmental factors for a more accurate assessment of potential fire hazards. Some smart detection systems incorporate air quality sensors to monitor changes in the atmosphere. This can include the detection of particles, gases or other anomalies that may indicate the presence of a fire or potential fire signatures.

The use of AI and machine learning help with pattern recognitions, which identify specific smoke and fire signatures. AI algorithms analyze patterns or trends in the data collected by sensors and enable the system to distinguish between normal conditions for a given environment as compared to deviations from the norm. Identifying fire or smoke conditions minimizes the chance of a false alarm scenario. The machine learning aspect teaches the system to adapt and improve over time. This continuous learning enhances the ability of a smart detection system to identify emerging fire risks and streamline the response strategies.

Smart detection systems can also be integrated with other building automation systems, providing seamless coordination for response to alarm conditions. Examples of these responses are activation of fire doors; heating, ventilation and air conditioning shutdown; and lighting systems that can respond to specific activation devices and provide visibility to help contain the spread of smoke and fire to promote timely and safe egress. These systems can be part of a networked infrastructure that promotes real-time communication between various building systems, shortening and coordinating fire alarm system responsiveness while also allowing for centralized monitoring and control.

Remote monitoring capabilities allow authorized personnel to observe system status and receive alerts or notifications, including increasingly active diagnostic tools that provide real-time analytics on device health or performance characteristics. This provides timely and accurate information regarding system maintenance frequencies to ensure systems remain reliable and fully operational.

These systems can be customized with a host of different configurable settings, including device sensitivity and response parameters based on specific needs or within which the environment they are installed. This type of adaptability ensures a well-tuned system that can address any unique characteristics or features of these different spaces. This customization also can include detailed logging and report generation that provides analytics and statistics relative to system operation and real-time system health checks or even post-incident analytics that can provide valuable information to personnel to improve response in future activity.

These smart detection systems represent the next generation of intelligent approach fire alarm technologies. By leveraging emerging advanced sensors, including AI and machine learning, these systems provide greater accuracy in detecting fire scenarios, thereby reducing the likelihood of false alarms and improving overall safety in various environmental conditions, from residential construction to emerging and complex technology facilities.

Figure 1: Newer addressable panels have increased device count capabilities and advanced programming options for complex protection needs. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Figure 1: Newer addressable panels have increased device count capabilities and advanced programming options for complex protection needs. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Wireless technologies

Another emerging area is the advancement of wireless technologies that have contributed to significant improvements for fire alarm system implementation in many industries. Some of the key trending wireless technologies come from the use of mesh networking, low-power wireless tech, 5G networks, enhanced security protocols, edge computing and increased range.

Mesh networking allows devices to communicate with each other, creating a self-healing and resilient network, which ensures that if one device fails or is obstructed, the network can reroute signals through alternative paths and continuous connectivity. This enhances the reliability of wireless fire alarm systems by providing a robust and reliable communication pathway that guarantees detection and notification devices can provide uninterrupted communication.

Low-power wireless technologies have seen improvements as well, with technologies like Zigbee and Z-wave providing extended battery life for some fire alarm devices. These longer lasting battery devices that run on low-power technology help reduce maintenance requirements and further enhance the overall reliability of the system.

Connectivity, like 5G and counting, offers faster and more reliable networks for wireless connectivity with ever lower latency. Fire alarm systems can benefit from this technology to enable quicker data transmission and more responsive communication between devices. This is highly relevant in emergency situations where timely and accurate alerts can be crucial to occupant notification for evacuation or other action. Additionally, better connectivity seeks to enhance interoperability and simplify integration with other building systems.

Enhanced security protocols, like Wi-Fi Protection Access 3, or cybersecurity protocols that protect radio frequencies (RFs), provide stronger and more robust encryption and protection from outside threats. Fire alarm systems using improved security protocols are extremely important to ensure these systems maintain integrity and the ability to ensure confidentiality of transmitted data within the wireless system. These types of protocols are necessary to safeguard against outsider threats from unauthorized personnel and prevent tampering.

Fire alarm systems can also use edge computing to enable faster data analysis and decision-making at the device level. Edge computing is a style that involves processing data closer to the source, reducing latency and improving response times. This can be of value for real-time monitoring and facilitating rapid response in potential fire events. Combined with the previously mentioned AI and machine learning, it can continue to enhance the ability of devices to process and make complex decisions that increase the complexity and ability for accurate detection.

Advances in RF technologies and antenna design, along with system extenders, have increased the range of wireless devices. Extended wireless range allows for better and more reliable coverage in larger buildings and reduces the number of devices necessary to ensure continuous and consistent monitoring.

Notification devices

Fire alarm systems have also seen significant advancements and improvements in notification devices. Recent focus has sought to enhance effectiveness, accessibility and customization, leading to advances in multimodal alerts, advanced voice evacuation systems, wireless devices, mass notification system integration and targeted alerts.

Multimodal alerts in devices combine visual signals (strobe lights), audible alarms (sirens, horns or voice) and textual notifications (LED display or signage) to provide adequate notification to individuals with varying sensory abilities in varying environmental conditions.

Figure 2: Cellular communication allows for reliable connectivity, even in difficult locations, providing convenient solutions to challenging conditions. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Figure 2: Cellular communication allows for reliable connectivity, even in difficult locations, providing convenient solutions to challenging conditions. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Advanced voice evacuation systems provide clear and intelligible voice messages during events. These devices use AI and machine learning to implement adaptable messaging based on specific environmental conditions.

Wireless notification devices offer flexibility in installation as well as scalability. Wireless devices such as alarms, decrease installation time, reduce the cost of wiring and make the process of retrofitting systems into existing structures easier. These features allow for maximum flexibility to adapt to changing conditions such as temporary structures.

The increased integration of systems includes combining fire alarm systems with mass notification systems that facilitates a more unified approach to emergency communication. This integration ensures that fire alarms and alerts are part of a multifaceted strategy for various emergency situations and encourages coordinated responses that allow for broader communication during emergencies beyond.

Visual notification devices, such as strobe lights, have evolved with high-intensity LED lights and customizable functions for mass notification. These advancements improve the visibility and attention-grabbing capability of visual signals, especially in environments with high ambient noise where audible alarms may be less effective.

Customizable alerts allow for building owners and key stakeholders to tailor the type, duration and intensity of alerts based on site-specific factors, the needs or vulnerabilities of occupants and the nature of the event. This allows for appropriate alerts for a variety of different scenarios and reduces the likelihood of panic or mass confusion. When combined with location-based alerts, different messages or responses to different zones, such as affected areas versus nonaffected areas, in an emergency situation can contribute to more efficiency in emergency response and facilitate safer egress for occupants.

Design and technology advancements of notification appliances, including horns, strobes and speakers, have improved the overall performance and reliability. These improvements contribute to the durability and effectiveness of notification devices, ensuring they meet the necessary safety standards and regulations, while also creating more responsive, adaptable and user-friendly notification devices in fire alarm systems. The goal is to enhance the overall safety of building occupants by providing clear and timely alerts during emergency situations.

Figure 3: This older style panel has limited inputs, relays and programming capabilities, which require more space allocation. Courtesy: CDM Smith

Figure 3: This older style panel has limited inputs, relays and programming capabilities, which require more space allocation. Courtesy: CDM Smith

While the benefits are significant, challenges exist, particularly in ensuring regulatory compliance and addressing potential security concerns in wireless systems. Ongoing collaboration with regulatory bodies, industry experts and professionals is essential to navigate these challenges successfully. Systems must be designed, installed and maintained in accordance with the requirements of the adopted edition of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, local requirements and stakeholder or insurance requirements.

Impact of technological advancements

All of these technological advancements are being actively implemented in various physical environments. New construction projects are integrating these features from the initial due diligence and planning phase, while existing structures are benefiting from retrofitting with wireless systems. The adaptability and intelligibility of these innovative next-generation technologies allows buildings of all sizes and types to enhance their fire and life safety systems and infrastructure.

Smart detection systems, quick and intelligent devices that communicate with other building management systems, new wireless technologies and more effective notification systems are all creating a rapidly changing environment. The more technology continues to evolve and adapt to new challenges, becoming more reliable and intelligent, the more that these systems will innovate and implement new equipment. What will the next safety breakthrough be?

Author Bio: Jarron Gass, PE, CFPS, is a fire protection discipline leader at CDM Smith. He focuses on fire suppression and fire alarm design and analysis as well as water supply analysis. Cristina Aragon-Vandenbent is a certified fire alarm designer specializing in system integration.