Burning Concerns

At this very moment, scores of fires are raging across the United States. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a new structural fire ignites every 60 seconds. A fire department is called into action every 20 seconds. A civilian life is lost in a fire every 12 hours. And each year, property damage losses due to fire total nearly $11 billion.

Used as tools to track trends and progress, these kinds of statistical data are crucial to understanding the effectiveness of the fire protection and detection industries.

In Security Sales & Integration’s September 2005 report, “Hot Issues Swirl Around Fire Market,” a series of charts provided statistical data related to fire events, deaths and property loss. This year’s Fire Industry Report covers the most recent figures available for fire loss (2005) and false alarms (2004). Plus, the scourge of false alarms, the scuttlebutt on visual notification, the push for mass notification systems and more.

False Alarms Persist as a Sobering Concern Across the Nation
Among the issues that cause consternation in the fire protection industry, the false alarm matter is likely the most pressing.

According to NFPA’s statistical data, the number of false alarms has actually gone down since the 2000 data were released. However, a chronic dilemma persists for fire departments across the United States.

For instance, the Uniformed Firefighter’s Association of Greater New York reported there were 37,332 false alarms in New York City’s five boroughs in 2004. That number decreased 13.9 percent last year to 32,138.

Even where the numbers have decreased over a period of years, there is still a good deal of work yet to be done.

According to 2004 nationwide data, there were more than 2.1 million false alarm calls generated by fire alarm systems. Sixty-five percent of the incidents — or 1.367 million — were created by bomb scares, unintentional calls and mischievous actions.

The remainder of false alarm calls (739,500) were generated by system malfunctions from dirty smoke detectors, faulty alarm panels and the like.

NFPA would like the fire detection industry to zero in on the issue of malfunctioning systems. Not just when reviewing statistical data, but also while updating field personnel and training new employees who may not be up to snuff on specific equipment the firm deploys.

False Alarms Have Negative Impact on Responders and Public Alike
False alarms negatively impact the fire alarm industry for a range of reasons, according to Marty Ahrens of NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division.

“False alarms tie up fire department resources,” says Ahrens, who is author of the NFPA report, False Alarms and Unwanted Activations. “Nuisance activations interrupt other activities and may lead people to ignore the early warning of a smoke alarm. They are the leading reason for deliberately disabling smoke alarms”

Fire authorities cite perhaps the most compelling impact of bogus alarms is the human toll suffered while firefighters are en route to response calls.

According to the report USFA Releases 2005 Firefighter Fatality Statistics: “Vehicle crashes took the lives of 26 firefighters in 2005. Five firefighters were killed in tanker crashes, five were killed in crashes that involved passenger vehicles, and four were killed in pumper crashes. Firefighters were also killed in crashes involving ATVs, aircraft and a boat.”

A strong displeasure with malfunctioning devices is a public image concern for the fire protection industry. Each time a device causes a false alarm, the owner often assigns blame to the device maker or system installer.

Then there is the subject of fines levied against property owners. While some municipalities allow a specified number of false alarms each month or annually, almost all of them will fine the owner based on a graduated price schedule. If the problem persists, the fine is either increased or the municipality may decline response altogether.

Also notable in the fight to remedy false alarms, the issue of recent mandates that often require verification before response occurs. Because seconds count in a structure fire, precious minutes taken to verify a blaze could mean the difference between life and death.


–>NFPA Looks at Visual Notification in ‘Big-Box’ Stores
According to Tom Binish, president of A&A Fire and Security of Green Bay, Wis., visual notification has become a hot button issue in the fire protection industry due to the proliferation of big-box retail stores.

Substantial debate in 2005 centered on notification appliances in stores like Wal-Mart, Kmart and others, says Binish. “While it was decided that strobe intensity and spacing resulting from the prescriptive design method is sufficient for occupant notification by direct signaling, the NFPA committee requested that additional data be gathered and added as comment in NFPA 72 reports,” says Binish.

Binish says NFPA discovered performance-based design would almost always result in lack of visibility in aisles. Although notification appliances may initially be positioned where most store occupants will see them, the store’s layout often changes over time due to design modifications.

Because retailers are not mandated to maintain aesthetical design traits, the committee came to a sensible conclusion: Many fire alarm installers are aware of the notification quandary, but code enforcement does not address the issue.

Authority having jurisdictions (AHJs) often adopt a one-size-fits-all, rigid mentality: they want things done a certain way — their way. In many cases, code dictates the installation of visuals on wall surfaces, and not ceilings. The pitfall? Again, the store’s original design is likely to be altered over time. Example: augmented shelving might obscure the original notification device, in which case no one will see it when a fire actually occurs. The solution? Install the visuals on ceilings where they cannot be covered up or easily ignored by store patrons.

And so the committee’s recommendation for fire alarm firms seems obvious: Install visual notification devices over main and peripheral aisles in an effort to catch the attention of as many retail shoppers as possible.

Pump Up the Volume: Emergency Voice Alarm Is on the Increase
Security dealers and fire technicians need to be aware of the current push to implement more emergency voice alarm communications (EVAC) signaling systems. EVAC systems are commonly referred to as voice evacuation systems by veteran fire alarm technicians.

An EVAC is described by the International Code Council as a “Dedicated manual or automatic facilities for originating and distributing voice instructions, as well as alert and evacuation signals pertaining to a fire emergency, to the occupants of a building.”

Many AHJs are pushing EVAC systems at every opportunity. This is especially true in large structures where the potential for f
atalities and injuries are greatest. Examples include high-rise buildings, large office complexes and places of assembly where proper and orderly evacuation is imperative. Not all AHJs agree with this trend, however. For example, one local code enforcement officer responsible for fire safety at a medium-size university in Ohio says she prefers traditional notification to EVAC.

“I forbid voice evacuation in our buildings because it does not get people’s attention,” says Corky Calderone, director of environmental, occupational, health and safety with the University of Akron. “Think about all the TVs, music playing, people talking and more. It’s just another voice, and people have learned to turn off voice messages.”

Intelligibility Is a Worry to U.S. Military and NFPA

Another EVAC deficiency: general lack of intelligibility. After all, what good is an EVAC system if the instructions being issued are unintelligible? Calderone says she’s not alone in her concern of this issue. So too, she says, are NFPA, fire alarm installation companies and an increasing number of institutions.

“One reason why I don’t allow [EVAC] systems in the university I work for is that I have never in all my years heard an EVAC system that the voice was audible and understandable to everyone in a building,” she says. “Yes, the code says it must be there, but it’s not.”

NFPA is working to improve intelligibility in the field. The first step was the development of a method of measurement. NFPA is also working to implement data in the next revision of NFPA 72.

For example, helpful information about voice clearness is contained in A. References are made to IEC 60849 concerning sound systems used for emergency purposes, as well as an intelligibility measurement that can be used to determine the clearness factor of a specific system.

This type of measurement is registered by an electronic metering system. According to NFPA, an EVAC system should have an intelligibility score of 0.7 or greater.

Gerry Ross, industrial development manager with American Signal Corp. of Attleboro, Mass., says when it comes to mass notification, the Defense Department is making intelligibility a hard requirement.

“The issue is if you have voice communication it would be a good idea to be able to understand it throughout the building. Intelligibility is another area where we’re working with NFPA to develop intelligibility standards where we can actually measure it in a system,” he says. “I’m not sure when the new NFPA 72 will be released, but it should have a separate ‘Annex’ section for mass notification system.”

Fire codes through the International Code Council (ICC) and NFPA are already in place to deal with the amplitude of verbal commands. “Basically, NFPA already has definitive requirements for how loud a signal must be above ambient noise levels,” says Ross.

For example, in Section of the National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72, published by NFPA, it states: “An average ambient sound level greater than 105dBA shall require the use of a visible notification appliances(s) in accordance with Section 7.5 where the application is public mode or Section 7.6 where the application is private mode.”

“This is defined as audibility but has no assurance that a voice message will be understood. Intelligibility is the measure of how well a voice message is likely to be understood,” Ross adds.

For many fire technicians, the answer to intelligibility is all too often simply boosting the amplitude of the audio. In many cases this is not a viable answer to the problem. The correct way to achieve better intelligibility is to install additional speakers – notification appliance devices – to maintain a more manageable volume level.

“Generally speaking, intelligibility is achieved by more speakers at lower wattage settings,” Ross says. “This works well for indoor applications where that is more easily achieved than say an outdoor facility like a military base that covers 20 to 40 square miles.”  

Intelligibility is also a major concern in outdoor mass notification systems, since the coherent delivery of commands can be potentially critical for saving lives.

“When dealing with large outdoor systems, intelligibility is even more difficult due to the number of variables, such as wind and traffic,” Ross says. “Most of the conventional ‘giant voice’ or wide area mass notification systems employ pretty conventional speakers that are suited for replacing large civil defense type warning sirens. Typically, the technology of these giant speakers has not changed much over the years. “

According to Ross, American Signal is developing a new type of technology that will address the need for higher intelligibility.

Race Is on to Bolster the Nation’s Mass Notification Capabilities

The life-safety industry has found itself at the center of a fast-evolving endeavor to bolster the nation’s ability to notify the masses of an imminent cataclysmic event.

In the May/June 2006 issue of the NFPA Journal, a report titled “Responding to Emergencies” attributes the call for greater use of mass communication systems to the military establishment and the Department of Homeland Security.

There are two aspects associated with mass notification: electronic notification and audible notification. The electronic aspect involves the ready and rapid notification of pending events using E-mail, facsimile, cellular phones, television and radio.

One of the players in the instant notification business is e2Campus, which delivers instant notifications of safety alerts direct to college students’ cell phones or handsets, at any hour of the day.

According to spokesman Bryan Crum, e2Campus client Maury Chaput, director of safety at Anne Arundle Community College in Anne Arundle, Md., uses electronic mass notification to cancel school because of snow.

“He gets up at 5 a.m. to check with the facilities team to assess the situation,” Crum says. “If they need to cancel classes, he first contacts the public safety office so they can call all the TV and radio stations. Second, he sends out an e2Campus alert that goes to everyone subscribed within minutes.

Third, he sends a voice mail message to all employees’ voice mailboxes. Fourth, he updates his Web site,” says Crum.

Crum says that electronic mass notification can also notify television and radio stations via E-mail. In some cases, these methods can also connect to a local EVAC signaling system.

The tie-in with the fire alarm community involves the use of audio voice to transmit information to individuals already within a building or outside somewhere on the property.

The specifications for a mass notification system are remarkably similar to those already in place with EVAC systems. This is why the military, for one, decided to build its own mass notification specifications around the traditional EVAC platform. However, NFPA is still seeking to develop new standards that center on mass notification technology requirements. It also wants to update existing EVAC requirements to assure better intelligibility of projected voice messages.

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

Security Is Our Business, Too

For professionals who recommend, buy and install all types of electronic security equipment, a free subscription to Commercial Integrator + Security Sales & Integration is like having a consultant on call. You’ll find an ideal balance of technology and business coverage, with installation tips and techniques for products and updates on how to add to your bottom line.

A FREE subscription to the top resource for security and integration industry will prove to be invaluable.

Subscribe Today!

Get Our Newsletters