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Fire Side Chat: Inside New Smoke Detection & Alternative Signal Path Reports

Sharing knowledge, wisdom and experiences is the path to continuing to move fire and life safety forward. This goes for innovating products, saving lives and reducing injuries and property loss, as well as running more successful businesses. That’s why conferences like NFPA’s recent Suppression, Detection and Signaling Research and Applications Symposium (SUPDET) are so important. .



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I just returned from the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s Suppression, Detection and Signaling Research and Applications Symposium, a.k.a. SUPDET. The four-day event devoted two days to the presentation of papers on detection and signaling followed by two covering suppression. Being that it is more in the wheelhouse of installing security and fire contractors, I only attended the detection and signaling portion.

SUPDET serves as a forum to discuss leading-edge research into new technologies and practices related to fire protection engineering within the contexts of suppression, detection and signaling. The papers presented are not commercial in nature, but the research discussed can and does lead to new products in the future.

A variety of papers were presented this year within the field of detection and signaling, and it is key points from select submissions among those that I will highlight for you below. For a complete listing of all the papers, visit nfpa.org/categoryList.asp?categoryID=242&URL=Research/Fire%20Protection%20Research%20Foundation.

Smoke Detection Vs. Sprinkling

Comparative Loss of Life and Injury Analysis in Commercial, Industrial and Education Institution Housing was offered by Jim Milke, Ph.D., P.E., of the University of Maryland. The findings were the result of studies conducted on the performance of automatic fire sprinklers within an occupancy with no automatic detection as compared to the performance within an occupancy that has both an automatic fire sprinkler system and automatic detection.

The study compared the number of casualties (fatal and nonfatal) within a number of occupancy types, looking at:

  • Fully sprinklered-only occupancies
  • Smoke detector-only occupancies
  • Combination of sprinklered and smoke detector-protected occupancies

Previous studies conducted by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) had shown that, within commercial occupancies, 23% of reported fires were too small to actuate an automatic fire sprinkler system. In residential occupancies, it was found that 10% of the fires would not be large enough to trip the sprinkler system.

Research conducted by NFPA has also shown sprinkler systems are effective in reducing the number of deaths. However, deaths still do occur, with the majority being either in the area of the fire or in close proximity to the blaze.

This new study showed that casualties also occurred within occupancies where smoke detection alone was present. The number of casualties in commercial occupancies was, however, less than in occupancies that only had sprinkler systems. Within industrial occupancies, this was reversed in that the higher number of casualties was found in buildings with smoke detectors alone as compared to those with just sprinklers. The assumption was that the fires at an industrial location tend to be larger than in commercial occupancies.

In both these occupancy types, there was not a reduction in casualties in those buildings that had both smoke detection and an automatic fire sprinkler system. It was the opinion of the author that where both were used, the building and the operations within may be of a more hazardous nature than one that only had a sprinkler system.

The study indicated there was a difference in the fires that were too small for a sprinkler system as compared to fires that were too small for a smoke detector. Thus, early warning of a fire could be provided by a smoke detection system or smoke alarms that a sprinkler system would not detect.

The research also looked at fires within multiple residential occupancies, such as college dormitories. As with the occupancies discussed above, the percentage of fires that was too small for a smoke detector to respond was less than the number of fires to which a sprinkler system would not activate.

The report concluded that smoke detectors operate prior to sprinklers, giving occupants earlier indication of a fire, whereas sprinklers limit the spread of fire. Both serve a purpose and should be included as part of any fire protection scheme.

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Article Topics
Fire/Life Safety · Other · Fire/Life Safety 2 · Dr. Shane Clary · Fire Protection Research Foundation · Fire Side Chat with Shane Clary · Fire Sprinklers · NFPA · NFPA 72 · All Topics

About the Author
Shane Clary
Shane Clary, Ph.D., is Security Sales & Integration’s “Fire Side Chat” columnist. He has more than 37 years of security and fire alarm industry experience. He serves on a number of NFPA technical committees, and is vice president of Codes and Standards Compliance for Pancheco, Calif.-based Bay Alarm Co.
Contact Shane Clary: smclary@bayalarm.com
View More by Shane Clary
Dr. Shane Clary, Fire Protection Research Foundation, Fire Side Chat with Shane Clary, Fire Sprinklers, NFPA, NFPA 72, Smoke Detectors


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