Technology Yields a Confluence of Fire Protection and Security

By Lindsay Saran, Editorial Intern September 1, 2006

Security is a behavioral science based on human want, need, decision-making and action. Fire protection is a discipline based on physical science. But thanks to breakthroughs in technology, notably in the world of digital video, the two crafts are converging to produce unexpected results.

According to Bill Sako, president of Sako & Assocs., Chicago, a division of the fire protection firm RJA, video smoke detectors are a prime example of this hybrid science. “Algorithms can be developed with security cameras to detect heat and smoke in a building, such as in an atrium or assembly room. Video can spot smoke arising long before a smoke detector identifies a potential fire,” said Sako.

What’s allowing this progression is the state of digital technology, which, according to Sako’s colleague, Lauris Friedenfelds, is advancing at an incredible pace. “Video can now be monitored by a series of network video managers, or file servers set up to take video from cameras, sort it out, and create a database where information is stored for 24 hours.

Such systems, he added, are set up so that networks can simultaneously record at multiple locations and store such video in large databases that can be kept for up to 30 days.

Much of this is predicated on the convergence digital video is enjoying with the world of IT; video signals and digital data can be compressed to the point where they can be managed into properly sized amounts. In other words, a business’ IT data network/control system is now in command of the surveillance system, which therefore makes surveillance systems more operable.

Of course, Sako cautions that any time new or unusual technology enters the world of fire protection, NFPA and Factory Mutual code certification is required. But Sako believes fire and security companies can integrate these particular devices and use one big system to both of their advantages. In fact, his firm is already doing so at one of the world’s largest airports.

United Airlines at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is working with Sako to take full advantage of more sophisticated operability options. Video cameras are being placed everywhere so that security operators have complete situational awareness—the security industry term where personnel feel completely comfortable in their control over a situation. Having a greater knowledge of their internal state of affairs will help United prevent lost luggage and packages, as well as allow security personnel to detect troublesome passengers before they can really disturb others.

But this begs the question of what is an actual disturbance or security threat? When guards see something suspicious, Sako said, they have a decision to make: take action or not. However, by integrating security and operations video, human error can be mitigated, as video programming can oftentimes respond more accurately. For example, in the case of a possible breach of security, alarms are sent out to response teams. But for a violation to be considered a legitimate threat, visual verification is necessary. Video, said Sako, is the most proficient way of verification; either a false alarm is noted or a physical description of the criminal is documented, allowing the investigation to begin much sooner and preventing the criminal from taking further action. “Before, a person couldn’t get to the problem to make a visual verification quick enough to prevent stolen goods or more crimes,” said Sako.

Although Friedenfelds describes digital video technology as having gone from “zero to 100” almost overnight, it’s not without its faults. One potential pitfall is video authentication—in other words, validating that video evidence has been protected against manipulation. MJPEG technology is helping. Sako said that courts of law are accepting it as watermarking, and as one and the same as time stamping.

So that’s the now. If security technology is advancing so rapidly, what about a year from now? Friedenfelds thinks the next wave is audio. “In the future, security could be in a combined world of data, video and audio,” he said. Adding audio means there will be more senses and stimuli to describe a certain event’s proceedings. Video and data alone leave different interpretations open after someone has moved their mouth to speak, but adding another level of audio leaves room for more accurate interpretations.”