Hot Seat: Life-Safety Code Process Could Benefit From Increased Partnership
Tom Connaughton is Director, Life Safety & Security Services, for Intertek, the product testing and certification firm. He joins the conversation to discuss trends and challenges in the fire/life-safety industry, as well as the codes adoption process.
What do you view as the life-safety industry’s most significant hurdle in the code writing and adoption process?
The biggest challenge is the ability of the industry to partner with the Authorities Having Jurisdiction in providing and understanding of new and evolving technologies. What you will see is the codes cycle — for example, NFPA 72 — is a three-year cycle. It is going to take three years to develop and vet the changes and amendments to the current edition of the standard and to put out the new edition. Then some added challenges behind it is each state will adopt different versions at different times.
So it’s the ability to keep the standards open enough to accept new and integrated technologies, which may not fall under the standard today. And then it’s also, in my opinion, industry working closer with the AHJs, such as the International Fire Chiefs Association or the National Association of State Fire Marshals, and providing them information on their new technology and sitting down with them and understanding what concern a fire marshal may have with a new type of software or with a product. The world and technology is moving so, so fast that the codes and the standards process greatly struggles to keep up with new and innovative technologies that are emerging. I don’t really know what the solution is, but better collaboration between all aspects of industry is really something that I am starting to see more of and something that I encourage.
Can you provide a good example of that newfound collaboration?
A good example of that was the recent NEMA 3SD meeting in Florida, which I attended. It is a subcommittee of manufacturers all about fire detection and signaling. They reached out and had an executive from the National Association of State Marshalls in attendance. And they also had a member of the International Fire Chiefs Association there as well. You had the AHJ community sitting in the same room with the manufacturers both expressing opportunities and challenges that they are seeing today and foresee in the future. That is an extremely positive step forward.
Is there a potential code out there going through the deliberative process that you feel is particularly noteworthy?
There is a hot button topic in the industry that is actually going to be the subject of discussion at the AFAA [Automatic Fire Alarm Association] annual breakfast, held at the NFPA Conference & Expo in June in Chicago. The topic is “NFPA 3: Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems.” Right now it is a guideline. It covers the recommended practices and methods of how to document and ensure that the fire control system is working in tandem with the smoke control system, with the elevator system, with the escalator system, with the HVAC system. Essentially, what it is asking is: How intelligent is this building — typically it’s aimed at more of a high-rise situation — and in the event that there is an issue, will all of these systems work in unison to mitigate the loss of property and life?
This is a very polarizing subject. There are some [industry stakeholders] who are adamantly opposed and some who are adamantly in support of this type of document becoming code. Right now, even though it is generated by NFPA, it is a guideline, not a code, which means that it is not required by law. This is a debate that is starting to really percolate. The next few years are going to be very interesting as this continues to be deliberated.
What technological advances in the fire/life-safety market excite you?
What really excites me is to see where the industry is going to be going over the next several years in regards to video. Not your traditional CCTV model where you are talking about a closed loop the majority of the time. What I am speaking to is active, live streaming video. That excites me from a security standpoint and from an actual fire standpoint. Video is very powerful. It provides insight into what is occurring in that property in real time. We suffer from an extremely high level of nuisance or false alarms. The cost to roll out a fire truck to a scene is exorbitant.
Depending on what type of alarm system and what type of video system is being deployed, you would be able to verify if there was smoke in a hallway. From Camera A we have a clear visual; Camera B is very cloudy. That may tell us we have a fire occurring. Or if it is a thermal camera we can see if there is a heat differential. Video is going to play a very positive role in aiding — aiding is the key word; it’s not the end all, be all. It is about aiding in the reduction false and nuisance alarms.
Do you expect video will eventually be mandated by code in certain facilities?
I wouldn’t care to speculate on that right now because the technologies are still so new. The code process is a very long and tedious process with a lot of dynamic players involved. I don’t know where it could be in 10 years. But where I could see some requirements would be more on the insurance side. An insurer could say, “You want us to underwrite this property that houses a $20 million inventory? Then we want perimeter security, we want motion sensors and we want video verification.” From where I sit that is where I think you will see the initial move into some type of [required video deployment.] That’s how I see it really starting to take root.
What differentiates Intertek’s ETL listing from Underwriters Laboratories’ UL certification mark?
It’s really time to market. In other words, how quickly and efficiently can we go through the products certification process and get our customer to market. Obviously, they can’t start to recognize their return on investments, which are usually significant in the R&D and the testing phases, if the equipment is sitting in the laboratory. It needs to be out and being deployed and being sold. Time to market is the primary, No. 1 driver. What fuels that is our partnership approach. Intertek takes a very hands-on approach with our customers. We work collaboratively with our customers to get their products certified. At the end of the day we are experts in standards and codes, but we may not be an expert on individual products.
In working with our engineers and the customers’ engineers, and then applying the codes, that allows for more of a collaborative partnership approach without violating our independent, third-party status. Ultimately, if you have two parties working together toward an end cause, you are going to get there quicker than one party just trying to understand and interpret the code, as well as how the product operates and functions. Those two pieces really drive each other as far as our value proposition to the industry. The collaborative approach fuels the time-to-market result, which provides the customer the capacity to sell much quicker.
Why did Intertek become involved in the life-safety and security markets?
The primary reason why we went all in in the space in 2005 was at the time UL, through their standards group, had the new edition of UL 864, which is the commercial fire control panel standard. Unfortunately for Underwriters Laboratories, they couldn’t keep up with the market and industry demand. The changes were so significant that there was a tremendous amount of retesting and recertification of current listed and approved equipment. Not to mention, all of the equipment that manufacturers were looking to put out new into
So some industry leaders came to Intertek — to myself and to our executive management — and asked us for help. They came forth and said, “You have helped us in other arenas whether it be medical equipment or lighting or HVAC. We need your help in the life-safety and security and signaling space.” At that point in time we decided to invest several million dollars of capital into both hard and soft assets and formally launch our life-safety and security business, really as the only true competitor in North America to Underwriters Laboratories. Essentially, we’re providing the industry with a choice. If you are not happy with your current service provider, if you’re not happy with their turnaround times or their pricing or whatnot, you now have an alternative in the industry to go and to seek and to compare between two laboratories.
Do you see a common deficiency from central stations or other applicants that want to become certified?
The biggest challenge whether you are an installation or integration company, a central station or an equipment manufacturer is a lack of understanding of what the standard and the code says. What we see a lot of time in all those instances, especially a new company that is trying to break into the market, they may not know all that they need to know. They may not have the most up-to-date standards or codes. That is the biggest pitfall we see from new applicants — making sure not only do they have the standard in hand, but are they able to interpret it and understand the way that the testing laboratory is going to interpret it and understand it. That is the biggest issue across the entire spectrum.
How does Intetek’s services help installing contractors be more proficient in the field?
In 2011 we delivered to the industry — not just the central station or the alarm installer or integrator, but also to the Authorities Having Jurisdiction — a tool we call AlarmDirect. AlarmDirect is an online security portal that is designed to support the integrator and the AHJ in the generation and verification of what is called “alarm system description certificates.” As an example, in Florida a lot of the various jurisdictions require before a certificate of occupancy is issued on a building that the alarm system has been installed and has been installed by an approved and listed alarm installer/integrator. In other words, that installer or integrator is under what is called “third-party surveillance.” That means Intertek and/or UL or FM has gone in, reviewed the central station, if that is part of the package, and reviewed the central station against the ANSI UL standard. It also means randomly going out and inspecting the installation, the maintenance and the testing that is occurring on that alarm system annually. We are a kind of a check-and-balance and we provide additional assurance to the AHJ community that the alarm system not only was installed properly by code and the standard, but is also being maintained and inspected in accordance with the standard.
Through our AlarmDirect portal, if you are an alarm installer, you can go out into the field and you can either access the site from a laptop or a tablet and you can actually populate your alarm description certificate in the field or at home in your pajamas if you want and submit it. Intertek will return, if it’s found to be acceptable, the final concluded certificate within 24 hours, whereas with our competitor, the installers were waiting four to eight weeks for that document to be returned. There is a value added to the installer and then to the AHJ as well because they are getting this information in real-time. Then the additional value added to the AHJ or the fire inspector in this case, they have the ability to register online for free and where they are able to access the site and view all of the ETL certificates issued in their jurisdiction.
It is aiding what is a depleted fire service with the ability to do code enforcement and it allows them to focus on the properties that might not be covered under a certification program related to code enforcement. The tools we are providing to them are online databases that can be researched at any given time with a history behind it. If a system was to fail or there is an issue detected we can identify where that issue came in throughout its history and then seek corrective action.
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