Perhaps no other technology in the past 150 years has contributed more to fire safety than early warning smoke detection systems. Data collected during the past 40 years alone estimates 90,000 lives have been saved by smoke detection and fire protection technologies. In addition, countless other potential tragedies may have been averted by early warning and intervention.
From rudimentary heat detectors invented in the late 1800s to sophisticated and integrated electronic systems in place today, smoke detection has been a significant scientific achievement. Like many aspects of modern life that we take for granted, progress has been a convergence of need and opportunity.
The basic methodology of smoke detection is remarkably simple. Scientists discovered a variety of ways to measure and monitor specific signals such as light intensity or ion currents. Detectors are then calibrated to trigger an alarm when these signals change in a way that suggests a fire might be present. Technological improvements over time made the systems more effective and cost-efficient. A significant advance came in the 1920s when the ion flow chamber (the first true smoke detector) was invented in Switzerland. Soon after, scientists began experimenting with other technologies such as projected beam and photoelectric detection methods.
Another major breakthrough occurred in the 1940s when scientists at Cerberus (now part of Siemens) adopted more efficient cold cathode (vacuum) tubes in ionization units. This technology was the standard for smoke detection well into the 1960s. In the latter part of the past century, most advances involved making smoke detection units smaller, more sensitive and more efficient. Transistors replaced trigger tubes. Safer and more stable radiation sources improved ionization chambers. Low-power units ushered in low-cost battery-operated devices for home use. Ultraviolet radiation detectors were used to develop the first flame detectors.
Recent studies reveal the odds of dying in a house fire are reduced 50% by having a working smoke alarm/detector installed. In commercial buildings, even in the presence of sprinkler systems, the benefits of smoke detection are significant. Sprinkler systems, by design, provide a localized response as heat (typically above 135° F) triggers the sprinkler directly where the fire is burning. Smoke detection systems integrated across commercial buildings quickly warn occupants of a potential danger before it spreads.
Clearly the best life-safety solution is to provide a combination of early warning smoke detection and fire sprinkler systems. Let’s take a look at the impressive variety of fire/life-safety detection technologies and devices currently available to help installing contractors best protect their clients’ persons and properties.
Advances Enable Smarter Detection
Today the focus is on integration of “smart” (multicriteria fire detection) technologies that increase value, simplicity and reliability. For example, one area of development involves advanced signal analysis via software that converts sensor signals into a mathematical formula. In real-time, the software dynamically compares signal data to sophisticated algorithms that differentiate between a fire emergency and harmless smoke (e.g., from a welder, steam, dust).
In special applications such as data and telecommunication centers, ultra-sensitive air sampling smoke detection systems continuously monitor the air and apply a staged alarm sequence to determine if, when and how a response is needed. For example, an active monitoring system may combine multiple air-intake ports to provide more immediate notification and increased efficiency within areas of high airflows.
One detector can cover up to 20,000 square feet as compared to passive detectors that generally cover about 900 square feet. Additionally, spot detector technology has evolved to include the capability to provide high sensitivity capabilities for Very Early Warning Fire Detection (VEWFD) suitable for the protection of a telecommunication facility, data center and high value areas.
Multicriteria fire detectors are the emerging technology in the 21st century. Technology today provides for two or more different fire sensors (e.g., smoke, heat, CO, ion, etc.) in a single detector that will process the signals with algorithms to determine alarm or monitoring status. Multicriteria detectors can sense danger more quickly, avoid nuisance alarms and provide valuable information for emergency responders. Combined with newer panels and control systems, they can also improve reliability and reduce maintenance costs.
As smoke detection advancements continue it is useful to understand the current state of detection technologies to better understand the landscape and make informed choices when specifying system elements, and to mitigate risk within the context of the facility and its intended purpose.
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