Life Safety to Get Fired Up About


A building’s appeal is based on its reputation for providing a safe, secure and convenient environment for its occupants. The safety equipment installed in a building varies by the size of the building, its height, age and use. High-rise buildings, including office buildings, hotels, apartments and hospitals, are typically categorized by exceeding seven levels, making the use of addressable fire systems that much more important in quickly locating the fire and promoting a fast response from emergency personnel.

Continuous improvement of commercial building safety systems is crucial. Recent National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics show annual average losses of 15 deaths, 300 injuries and $26 million in direct property damage from fires in high-rise buildings. Because automatic fire protection equipment and fire-resistive construction is more common in high-rise buildings, NFPA’s “High-Rise Building Fires” report suggests the risk of death during a high-rise building fire is significantly lower than in a non-high-rise building. However, although statistics show high-rise fires have been steadily declining during the past two decades, addressable fire system technology remains a vital tool in the quest to maximize life-safety efforts.

According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), most high-rise building fires begin no higher than the sixth-story level. One significant concern with high-rise building fires is locating the origin of the fire in relation to egress. NFIRS reports that high-rise hotels have a larger share of fires originating in means of egress than non-high-rise hotels. The integration of mass notification with intelligent fire alarm systems is essential in minimizing damages and providing a safe exit strategy for those in the building. The demand for these technologies continues to grow, resulting in the development of codes and regulations, new applications, and overall costs decreasing. 

Designed for Quick Response

Designers and installers can choose addressable or conventional control panels to monitor smoke detectors and other equipment. Addressable panels offer more capability to quickly identify and isolate a potential emergency. They are efficient to maintain and offer advanced reporting features.

An addressable control panel receives signals that provide the precise location and status of each individual detector connected on the panel loop. These detectors indicate abnormal conditions, including maintenance alerts or loss of contact to the panel. Building engineers know exactly where to go when a device requires attention, saving time and minimizing frustration.

Addressable systems provide early, constant, real-time monitoring of many open areas or individual office spaces. They accurately specify the source of smoke before it escalates to more advanced, damaging stages. These addressable systems are also capable of directing Emergency Response Team (ERT) personnel to trouble areas quickly, minimizing smoke contamination.

Fully networked addressable systems enable operators to assess the status of detectors dispersed throughout a building instantly by using optimum communication speed and pinpoint accuracy to enhance response time. It allows diagnosis, and in some cases, even repairs from a central location for improved system maintenance.

Networked addressable fire and life-safety systems use one of two types of communication media. An RS-485 network uses a single pair of copper wires to connect multiple buildings’ addressable systems on one network. Fire and life safety systems can also use fiber-optic cable as an alternative, which is used extensively in telecommunications and data applications.

The choice depends on site conditions including existing utility trenches, environmental conditions within an existing trench system (e.g., copper performs poorly in damp environments), availability of spare capacity on an existing fiber-optic network, and the thoroughness of the building’s master plan. For example, if a fiber-optic telecommunications network is being planned, allow capacity for fire alarm and life-safety systems.

There are many interface options for remote system monitoring and control, including elaborate graphical user interfaces on large stationary monitors or small portable ones. Today’s fire and life-safety systems offer more flexibility and rapid expandability with the integration of these addressable smoke detectors. 

Diverse Environment Challenges

Today’s dynamic, multiuse buildings present fire and life-safety system design challenges. A large open ballroom in a hotel, for example, may be unoccupied for days and then be transformed for an event with hundreds of people, computer equipment, projectors, musical amplifiers, catering appliances or other heat-generating sources.

Modern smoke detectors are designed to maintain protection in variable environments. Smoke detection systems connect various components to determine whether the safety of a physical space is being compromised. A system may include addressable, nonaddressable and/or battery-operated smoke detectors to meet the requirements of the different areas of a facility.

Because of the diverse environments, fire safety considerations for each area must be planned individually. The challenge is to build these individual systems in such a way that they can communicate to one central fire and life-safety system for overall protection.

Restaurants, retail areas, ballrooms or theaters often occupy the lower floors of multiuse buildings. The fire and life-safety approach for these areas may be quite different from the approach used in residential areas. Typically, the floor-to-ceiling height is taller, and individual compartments are larger on the lower floors of the building.

Airflow patterns play a major role in the effectiveness of detection devices, and an HVAC monitoring system may be a good option for smoke control. The lower floors may have interconnected levels creating scenarios where smoke must be prevented from traveling to an adjacent level through the floor opening. Some of the lower floors may also use a pressurization approach to limit smoke dispersion.

Using a beam smoke detector on the addressable panel loop offers another option for detection. A beam detector can monitor a large, irregular open space, such as a lobby atrium, by using an optical sight to provide an early warning signal. Beam detectors have advanced algorithms to select optimum sensitivity for a specific environment. Remote test stations can facilitate maintenance and NFPA 72 test requirements.

There is no “one-size-fits all” approach to protecting a multiuse building. The smoke control concepts must be developed to address the particular life-safety needs for each unique structure. The best-case scenario is a life-safety plan that examines all of the various fire scenarios that could occur in a building’s different areas and recommends actions to address those scenarios.

A diverse environment needs a cohesive plan that delivers data from individual monitoring systems to a single point where a qualified operator can respond instantly. To achieve this, a building manager needs to look at the total property as a suite of different spaces and install a suite of different products to protect it. Essentially, the plan, the personnel, the training, the devices, the panel, the network and the first responders create a unique communication system customized to a particular property’s fire and life-safety needs. 

Elevating the Expectations

Modern risks and hazards have prompted the fire protection industry to reevaluate its two main objectives: to reduce the loss of life and limit property losses from fire. The industry needs to create systems that will perform in various types of emergencies
, including fire, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and hazardous material releases. These systems, known as mass notification systems (MNS), need to provide clear instructions during emergencies through different building communication systems to increase emergency management effectiveness.

So how do today’s addressable fire and life-safety systems evolve into mass notification?

In actuality, fire alarm systems incorporating voice communications capabilities have been used for decades to provide mass notification to building occupants of fire conditions, as well as other emergencies, such as severe weather alerts and chemical spills.

Existing codes, standards and regulations define the reliability of fire detection systems. That reliability makes those systems highly effective as platforms for mass notification. The rules, testing procedures and installation practices are established. In addition, the first responders are already familiar with the fire detection equipment, many with years of hands-on experience.

Some fire and life-safety systems have expanded capabilities in which their voice messaging incorporates mass notification features. The system has the ability, via local- or wide-area networks or the Internet, to send real-time emergency messages to multiple remote locations simultaneously. In essence, workstations that are connected to the fire and life-safety system can send emergency messages to one or many sources.

A wide variety of technologies and devices can be integrated into an MNS, including amplifiers, speakers, electronic digital message displays (all monitored for integrity), computer interfaces (e-blast and pop-up messaging), reverse 911, commercial radio broadcast, cable TV, PDAs, cell phones, and pagers. Some solutions use wireless or fiber-optic networks capable of simultaneously transmitting audio and digital communications over a single fiber-optic strand.

Fire and life-safety systems are becoming more flexible, efficient and responsive. A broad range of technical devices is available to monitor diverse environments and send precise information to a common station where an emergency response plan can be initiated, if necessary. Voice instructions can be broadcast to eliminate ambiguity and prevent confusion and panic. These factors combine to save lives and protect property in today’s most sophisticated and diverse structures.

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