A Look at What Lies Ahead for Life Safety

Due to the criticality of their mission, fire/life-safety practices and systems tend to change more slowly than a lot of industries. However, even it is beginning to reflect technology’s accelerating pace. Find out what to expect in 2012 and just beyond.

With this being SSI‘s 2012 Industry Forecast Issue, it got me thinking where the fire alarm industry might be heading within the next few years. I hesitate to go beyond five years out as there will more than likely be a technology on the market of which I am not even yet aware. What is “state of the art” today will be old news tomorrow.

When I started college in 1972, I invested more than $300 in a calculator. It was able to provide basic functions such as addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. It could also perform square roots! Today, I can buy a calculator for less than $30 that will perform complex variables. How many of us still have a slide rule? My first home computer had 64K of memory. Now I struggle if I do not have at least 25GB of space on my laptop hard drive. While I had some exposure to the Internet at college during the mid-1970s, I could not imagine it as it is today.

I have been in the fire alarm and intrusion detection industry since 1974, which in historical context is not a very long time. But since I began, oh how things have changed in this business. Let’s rewind briefly before digging out our crystal balls to gaze at what likely lies just ahead.

It Was Not So Long Ago That …

When I came into the industry, the primary means of transmission from the protected premises to the central station was either via a McCulloh loop or directly connected. There were still a large number of local systems being installed as well as auxiliary systems. It was not uncommon for a police or fire department to monitor systems, or for a system to call in directly from the protected premise via a tape dialer.

Multiplex systems were just starting to come into the market, and long-range radio and the digital dialer were still several years away from being released. Within the fire alarm arena, smoke detectors were relatively new, and most systems installed were manual, heat detection or monitoring waterflow and supervisory switches. A fair number of McCulloh loop transmitters were powered by a windup spring. I still have several keys that were used to rewind the transmitters.

The NFPA 72 standard we have today as a single document was divided into a number of publications in 1974:

  • NFPA 71 (Central Station Systems)
  • NFPA 72A (Local Systems)
  • NFPA 72B (Auxiliary Systems)
  • NFPA 72C (Remote Station Systems)
  • NFPA 72D (Proprietary Systems)
  • NFPA 72E (Automatic Fire Detectors)
  • NFPA 74 (Recommended Good Practices for Private Dwellings)

In 1974 there were no documents for notification appliances, voice communication systems or the testing of fire alarm systems. There were no wireless detectors and mass notification systems, and the requirements for the ADA were not even contemplated. Work on a document for carbon monoxide systems was still two decades away.

Top 5 Fire Alarm Industry Predictions

Enough of the past, time to move upward and onward with my bold predictions:

  • NFPA 72 will move to become a more performance-based standard than prescriptive. The concept of risk analysis was added in the 2010 version for emergency communication systems and has been expanded on for the 2013 edition. I see during the next several editions a further move in this direction with testing frequencies, spacing of detectors, communication methods, means of circuit survivability, protection of the control unit and emergency communication systems.
  • The digital alarm communicator transmitter (DACT) will fade into history. This has been discussed throughout the industry for several years. The two leading telephone providers have made it known they no longer wish to invest in the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) that provides Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) as the world moves more and more to wireless and the Internet. Their efforts are being placed in these transport systems. For the past several years manufacturers have been releasing Global Systems for Mobile Communications (GSM) and IP products. In the 2010 edition of NFPA 72, provisions were made so that if any single method of communication device sends in a test signal or “heart beat” every five minutes, its use is allowed.

Just as McCulloh and direct wire systems have gone away so too will the digital dialer. I see this occurring well within the next five years. This will require the fire alarm and integrated systems contractor to become educated in how these networks operate.

  • Fire departments will become more vocal toward the reduction of “unwanted” alarms. During the past two years the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has been working with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) and Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA) to find ways to reduce unwanted alarms. A number of proposals were submitted for consideration for the 2013 edition of NFPA 72. While not all were accepted, a number were.

I expect that within the next few years fire departments will begin to look at this issue the way law enforcement does today, which would include fines and nonresponse. Several departments have already gone this route. The use of verified response will start to make its way into use for commercial systems. This was a hotly contested topic during the development of the 2013 edition of 72, and I expect further debate on this topic between now and the release of this edition.

  • Use of wireless detectors. For a number of years, the residential intrusion industry has used wireless smoke detectors for single-family dwellings. Within the past several years many manufacturers have come to market with reliable wireless smoke, heat and monitor modules. While cabling will not be completely replaced, the use of wireless detectors within a commercial environment will increase. The range of these devices has improved as well as their battery life. While the system designer will have to be aware of the environment in which the devices are to be installed, the difficulty in running wire and conduit to each detector point will be reduced through their application.
  • Integrated testing of fire protection systems. I recently wrote about this. The development and eventual release by the NFPA of a standard for the full integrated testing of fire protection systems will add an additional requirement for the testing of systems that is not currently present. Once NFPA 4 is released, it will only be a matter of time before it is used throughout the Union. This will most likely occur through its adoption by the International Fire Code and NFPA 1 (Fire Code).

It will be interesting to look back in five years’ time to see how these predictions came to pass, and to what magnitude. I have no doubt, however, that at some date in the not-too-distance future a young man or woman starting in our industry will write about how the items discussed here were commonplace and how much things had changed.

Shane Clary, Ph.D., has more than 37 years of security and fire alarm i
ndustry experience. He serves on a number of NFPA technical committees, and is Vice President of Codes and Standards Compliance for Pacheco, Calif.-headquartered Bay Alarm Co.


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