Integrating fire protection, security

This month's panel discusses the challenges engineers face integrating fire alarm and security systems, and provides practical solutions. CSE: What integration snafus have you seen in the field and how were they fixed? CASAMASSIMA: 1) Running out of node capacity within a network. Solution was to divide the system into two independent networks and utilize a global monitoring station.

By Melissa Hillebrand, Associate Editor August 1, 2007

This month’s panel discusses the challenges engineers face integrating fire alarm and security systems, and provides practical solutions.

CSE: What integration snafus have you seen in the field and how were they fixed?

CASAMASSIMA : 1) Running out of node capacity within a network. Solution was to divide the system into two independent networks and utilize a global monitoring station. 2) Adding voice evacuation after the fact. Make sure that the specified system is capable of supporting audio without major network wiring changes. 3) Major application changes required nearing the end of the project. Make sure the specified system can be field programmed and it includes some type of Boolean control script language that can be used to address those changes.

GIANNINI : Most of the problems I have seen involve systems that do not have the capability to be integrated to other systems. The pre-planning for systems integration needs to be performed by skilled integrators who understand the various communication protocols and application hierarchies of the platforms to be integrated. Many times the systems are never truly integrated, but rather managed from a single location. This scenario still provides a degree of control, but not to the level of a truly integrated system.

CONVERY : Field coordination between disciplines during installation. If the responsibilities of each contractor are not clear, this can lead to inoperable systems or cost overruns. If a building system is installed that requires AC power to operate and the power has not been coordinated, the installation of power over and through sensitive equipment may not be optimal and costly.

CSE: How are sequences of operation for integrated fire/security systems written and tested?

GRILL : Defining the sequence of operation for integrated fire/security systems can be very complex depending on the occupancy and owner requirements. In most occupancies, fire has been—and I believe will continue to be— No. 1 priority over security signals. In the 2007 edition of NFPA 72, the new Annex information on mass notification systems indicates that priorities of messages should be based on the nature of the message to be administered. The committee recognizes that there may be instances where a fire alarm may not be the highest priority in some circumstances. The development of a sequence of operation should take into consideration management policies in complex facilities.

GIANNINI : Again, experienced qualified systems integrators have the abilities to provide the appropriate level of programming, together with proven testing protocols, for the sequence of operations needed by the customer. Some of these programs and tests are code driven, and some are driven by the specific needs of the customer. The more experienced systems integrators have knowledge and skills in both of these areas.

CONVERY : The sequence of operation for an integrated fire/security system is written and tested the same as other building systems interact with the integrated fire/security system. Operating procedures are developed for each mode of the combined system. Codes and standards define priority reporting. Testing of all components should be conducted to ensure proper installation and function. Because the systems are integrated there may be some redundancy, which can provide time and cost savings.

CASAMASSIMA : Historically, authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) have required that the two systems be tested independently from each other and that security should not interfere with the control aspects of the fire system.

CSE: What do you think is the most significant integration challenge and what is a good approach for dealing with it?

CASAMASSIMA : The most significant challenge ahead is to integrate the requirements of mass notification with the existing infrastructure. Most networks are control-type functions, so adding an audio component is very challenging. Specifiers should ensure whatever systems they are specifying can support mass notification, both now and as an add-on in the future.

GIANNINI : The most significant challenge involves the integration of security technologies that must communicate over existing customer network infrastructures. The use of software development kits has become more common. Having personnel who can develop and write the appropriate scripts/source code for these kits is an important first step.

GRILL : Timing of completion can be the most significant challenge. When dealing with life-safety systems, obtaining a temporary certificate of occupancy (TCO) to allow for move in, etc. can be critical. Many AHJs will grant a TCO if a ventilation or security system isn’t completed. However, they won’t grant a TCO if your life safety systems aren’t operational.

The design of the systems needs to take this into consideration. It often is impossible to adequately test the life safety function of a fully integrated system without the entire system being complete.

CONVERY : One of the most significant challenges is coordination between disciplines. Inherently, security systems are meant to fail secure while fire alarm systems are meant to fail safe. Security system professionals must be careful not to violate life safety code requirements. A close working relationship between security system professionals and fire protection professionals help alleviate this challenge.

CSE: Technology is constantly evolving. How can integration efforts keep up?

GRILL : First you have to try to define integration. In my opinion, if your overall fire protection approach isn’t integrated, the owner will not receive the best value or best technical solutions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the low voltage systems are driven by a common control panel. But it does mean that they all have been considered and specified so that they will work together. Getting back to the question, there needs to be continual interaction between suppliers of the various types of systems to ensure that equipment can function appropriately together and not interfere with critical functions. The importance of this interaction and coordination is going to increase as more functions, such as mass notification, are integrated with fire alarm and other building systems.

CASAMASSIMA : Technologically speaking, due to the regulatory enforcement nature of the business, the fire industry always has been one step behind the security industry when accepting the latest technology. Therefore, there will always be a need to have gateways and bridges designed to integrate the two.

When AHJs begin allowing more advanced fire system innovations to be utilized, integration efforts will begin to get easier and more common. Manufacturers of fire and security also should investigate ways to better collaborate, for the sake of improved integration.

GIANNINI : Systems integrators are constantly challenged to keep their staff current and up-to-date with evolving technologies. With the advent of more IP-based and network solutions, it’s essential that integrators make the necessary investments to train theirtechnical and/or engineering personnel so they can be certified by companies such as Microsoft and Cisco on networking and other critical integration technologies. Ultimately, the key to successful integration is having trained personnel who can meet the systems integration challenges of today—and beyond.

CONVERY : There are numerous systems required for a building to function properly. Different building management systems control the internal temperature; monitor the building population through entryway card readers; control fuel consumption; provide vertical transportation; and alert occupants of impending danger. Each of these systems must interface in order to work in conjunction. When direct communication between building systems is not possible due to antiquated technology, primitive alternate methods are incorporated, which impact the function of the building systems.

One solution would be to sole-source many of the building systems to a single provider. This may not be the optimal solution as one provider may not be able to supply equipment that meets all the users’ requirements. Integrating various systems requires staying current with product upgrades and being knowledgeable of various system capabilities.

CSE: Should all future fire alarm systems be designed with voice evacuation regardless of building or occupancy type?

GRILL : “All” is a very strong statement. Small buildings with a limited number of occupants may not justify voice notification. I do believe that the public in general do not react to alarms the way the standards expect them to. When incidents occur, the common complaint is that there wasn’t enough information. Voice systems allow for much better communications and given the trend in NFPA 72 to allow a fire alarm system to be used for more than one purpose, added value may be gained by installing more voice systems.

CONVERY : A few years ago I would have said no. Working in New York City, where high-rise office buildings with voice evacuation systems are prevalent, I have learned to appreciate the benefits. There may be instances where occupants are directed out of harm’s way via the fire alarm system. Alerting occupants of an imminent emergency and being able to provide information can allow for a calmer organized evacuation.

CASAMASSIMA : Yes. There have been many examples during actual emergency situations where people ignored the blaring sounders and strobes, believing that the building was experiencing a false alarm. If a live voice message could be used, then the occupants could be told that they were experiencing a real alarm condition and be directed immediately out of the building.

GIANNINI : The answer is yes. The need for emergency communications capability is increasing, in all markets and applications. Fire alarm systems that provide voice evacuation capability can immediately raise the effectiveness of an organization’s emergency preparedness to communicate to building occupants during a crisis.

CSE: What integration suggestions do you have for the case of a large addition to an existing building?

CASAMASSIMA : Due to technology advances during the last decade and new ANSI 9th Edition regulatory requirements, the building owner should consider replacing either or both the control equipment, fire sensors and modules if the existing system is older than 10 years. Otherwise work with the current system’s distributor to determine whether the existing infrastructure can accept additional devices and control equipment.

GIANNINI : The project should be planned so that it includes a retrofit that will bring the safety and security systems in the existing portion of the building to the same level as those being installed in the new construction area. This means integrating fully the fire alarm, access control, video, communications—and where needed, building control systems—into one information management platform. A central command location that pulls data from all these systems into a cohesive incident management tool raises exponentially the emergency preparedness capability of the site.

GRILL : The most important suggestion is that you not jump to a conclusion on the approach before looking at the options. In older buildings, the existing systems are often difficult to expand or integrate with new technology. The best solution is often to design the new equipment to take over as the controlling equipment. Timing is everything with fire safety equipment. Maintaining existing functionality to allow for continued operation is often a primary goal. This can require the installation of parallel equipment with a scheduled change over to limit any potential interruptions.

CONVERY : If the existing systems are original to the building or use outdated technology and the budget allows, try upgrading the existing systems. Avoiding the challenges of interfacing new equipment with antiquated systems or maintaining multi-systems must be considered. There will be an up-front cost for system upgrades, but the benefits may be cost-effective. A cost-benefit analysis may be advantageous.

CSE: What guidance can you offer regarding multilingual alarm notification systems?

CASAMASSIMA : There is no question that there are areas in the United States where multilingual notification systems are becoming a must. English- and Spanish—language systems are the most common, but the audio portion of the majority of today’s fire systems allow for the pre-recording of various audio messages in any language.

CONVERY : I would recommend against multilingual alarm systems. Upon actuation of the building fire alarm system, occupant notification begins. Several rounds of a recorded message are transmitted to the occupants. Each transmittal round can take 10 to 15 seconds per round. If four transmittal rounds of notification in English is broadcast, then four rounds in a second language and finally four rounds in a third language are broadcast, the delay between languages can be significant and lead to panic among occupants.

GRILL : This is a building specific issue that should be considered in the design and specification phases. Some public buildings that are designed to draw occupants from a broad range of countries are being designed with a library of announcements in many different languages. The time required to communicate information needs to be considered if announcements are going to be made in a variety of languages.


Mario Casamassima

V.P. of Engineering, Gamewell-FCI, Northford, Conn.

James J. Convery , P.E., CPP

Project Director, Schirmer Engineering of New York, White Plains, N.Y.

Tom Giannini , CPP

Director, Security Marketing,

SimplexGrinnell ,

Westminster, Mass.

Ray Grill , P.E., FSFPE

President, Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, Md.