The New Life/Safety: Faster, More Reliable and Cheaper, Too

When the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) granted approval of a new standard allowing data networks to be used to report fire alarm and other life safety-related signals to central monitoring facilities, the move heralded a new age in life safety. By approving Formal Interpretation (FI) 72-99-1 and Tentative Interim Amendment (TIA) 99-3, NFPA took the first step towards nearly instantaneous transmission of life-safety alarms.

Not only has transmission improved, but end-user control has increased. By offering self-monitoring of systems over data networks, either through the Internet or a closed intranet, security managers have the ability to monitor a system through a variety of means that begin with Web browsers, but can include personal digital assistants (PDAs) and virtual keypads.

The 21st century offers home and business owners the ability to control, from literally anywhere in the world, access, sensitivity and monitoring on a level not previously afforded. This increased usability, combined with faster, cheaper and more reliable alarm transmission, means that alarm dealers have never had a better service to offer.

Data-Networked Alarm Panels Offer 3 Benefits

Many in the industry say that when NFPA approved the TIA and FI, the move signaled a paradigm shift in alarm notification. Panels that communicate via data networks offer three distinct advantages. Life-safety systems depend on speed in order to do their job. Data networks operate in a fraction of the time traditional systems take to communicate an event. Additionally, an alarm system is meaningless if the signal does not go through. From a feasibility standpoint, it isn’t realistic to try to test a dedicated phone line more than once a day. That phone line, and the system that depends on it, is vulnerable for the next 23 hours and 59 minutes. With a data network, a simple 64-byte test can be sent out once every minute to make sure that the network is online without affecting bandwidth.

The other great benefit of a data network over traditional systems is one of economy. Depending on the particular Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), a system might require having either one or two dedicated phone lines in order to meet the requirements for Grade AA.  Suppose it costs $60 per month to maintain two dedicated lines; a company could save $720 per location per year by switching to data network alarm notification.

Data Transmits Before a Digital Dialer Can Dial

The current system of two dedicated lines, digital dialers, modems, handshaking and multiple protocols means that even though data is transmitted digitally, the process of simply making a connection is so time-consuming—often upwards of 30 seconds to a minute—that valuable life-saving time is lost. In the time that a digital dialer waits to detect a live phone line, a signal sent via a data network can be sent to a central station and a confirmation signal can be sent back. Transmission and confirmation take place in a fraction of a second, meaning that a kiss-off takes place before a digital dialer can detect if a live line is present.

Speed Means Nothing if the System Isn’t Reliable

Quick transmission can be a great selling point, but it is meaningless if the means of transmission doesn’t connect. According to current UL standards, a phone line can be inoperative for nearly 24 hours before monitoring personnel learn of the failure. Needless to say, a lot can happen in 24 hours. With a data network, any interruption in service is signaled to the network administrator immediately; there is no wait for a daily line check.

When it comes to reliability, Mark Visbal, associate director of technology and standards for the Security Industry Association (SIA) in Alexandria, Va., delineates between managed networks and the Internet, noting that managed networks, such as LANs and WANs will offer more reliable service than the Internet due to the fact that the universal resource locator (URL) number isn’t usually available for the server of a managed network.

Data Networks Represent Long-Term Savings

The elimination of the need for as many as two dedicated phone lines can present business owners with an opportunity to realize substantial savings. Naturally, before a company can count dollars saved, it must upgrade its current system, either with an additional module or a new panel.

A few of the panels and modules that allow the transmission of alarms via data networks have been on the market close to 18 months and are already dropping in price. Dealers can select several different options, from such companies as Radionics and DMP, for as little as $200 to $400. Even in some of the lowest-cost areas of the U.S., that expense is less than what a company is likely to spend on a single dedicated phone line. Add in the cost of a second dedicated phone line (as many AHJs require) and one-year savings can exceed $1,000 per location. For a company with 100 locations, savings can reach $100,000.

Write Standards That Work for the Industry

Manufacturers expect UL to grant approval for the standard as part of UL 864 and 1067 before this article is printed. Already, several manufacturers have presented panels to UL for the purpose of listing. These new panels communicate via the new standard for packet-switched data networks. Many manufacturers believe that end users will be eager to make the switch to the new panels. Not only will the panels offer greater reliability, but they will allow customers to realize substantial savings.

Networks Increase Control, Decrease False Alarms

As alarm systems continue the transition from being hardware- to software-based, end-user access has increased as control has increased.

Visbal believes the combination of greater speed, greater reliability and savings from transmitting alarm signals via data networks will offer a fourth benefit to users. Speed, reliability and inexpensive communication will allow systems to transmit more information.

Transmitting more information means keeping end users and central stations in better contact with premises.

With Increased Features Come New Controls

Using data networks to control life/safety systems means that users are no longer tied to a traditional keypad to control a system. With the new panels and modules, many manufacturers offer ways to access the systems from a variety of means.

Users willing to spend the money are more able to control a system remotely. Not only can users arm and disarm systems from remote locations, given the particular choice of hardware and software, users can view CCTV feeds, monitor and adjust HVAC environmental controls, turn on and off internal and external lighting, in addition to receiving pages and/or E-mails from the system in the event of an alarm.

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