Fort Knox Fire System Good as Gold

The greenhorn soldiers of I Troop, 5th Battalion, 15th Cavalry are enduring a 16-week course at Fort Knox in Kentucky that will take them from basic training all the way through to becoming advanced scouts in the U.S. Army.

When the soldiers of I Troop return to their barrack after a hard day’s slog, like many others at Fort Knox who are charged with protecting America, their lives are more secure today than ever before. A major renovation of the 1950s-era barracks, which they call home, was undertaken recently to provide the soldiers a safer living quarter. The exterior and interior overhaul included ripping out antiquated conventional fire alarm systems, which consisted of only of hallway bells and horns. 

To better safeguard the troops, a sophisticated fire/life-safety solution would call for the latest fire alarm control panel technology and also meet new stringent anti-terrorism mass notification codes mandated by the military in the wake of 9/11. Freedom Communications, a systems integrator based in nearby Louisville, Ky., landed the responsibility for providing the installation — and the safety of the barracks’ residents. 

Existing Relationship With Contractor Facilitated Installation
Freedom Communications first became familiar to Fort Knox, which stretches across four counties, in 2003 while performing small jobs with a small electrical installer. The connection would be a fortuitous one as the company, which also offers services in the commercial, residential and health-care markets, would learn about and then pursue the large undertaking to renovate the 14 barracks. 

“They told us that they were looking for nonproprietary fire alarm control panels that they could easily work with and order parts for after the install,” says Brian Banta, vice president of Freedom Communications. “For us to come up with a design and to come up with our pricing, it took about a week and then we handed over our numbers.” 

About four weeks later, the company, which had already paid its dues by earning the rigorous General Services Administration (GSA) contract status, was notified it had been awarded the job. Their winning bid incorporated the installation of one Fire•Lite MS-9600 fire alarm control panel (FACP) in each of the 14 barracks. The addressable FACP is a compact system manufactured with surface-mount technology and designed for easy installation and programming. 

The panel includes advanced fire protection features such as maintenance alert, automatic detector test and smoke detector sensitivity printout. The units also offer an optional digital alarm communicator transmitter (DACT-UD), which allows for remote site upload/download and remote monitoring and diagnostics. 

The equipment was delivered to the project site in April 2006 and Banta and his team set right to work. Due to the extensive interior and exterior renovations, a general contractor had already ripped out the conventional 1970s-era fire alarm system from each barrack. The existing relationship between Freedom Communications and the electrical contractor it bid to for the project further facilitated the FACP installation. 

“They piped all of our runs and pulled our cable in for us,” Banta says. The contractor also mounted all of the control panels, while Freedom Communications handled final termination and programming. “We gave them preliminary drawings of device locations and then they lay in their pipe drawings on how it was done on that plan.” 

FACP Capable of Easy Interface
With Mass Notification Updating the housing for many of the 23,000 soldiers, family members and civilians that call Fort Knox home was inevitable. In 2002, the Department of Defense (DOD) published the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC), which, among other anti-terrorism and fire/life-safety mandates, requires that mass notification systems be installed in conjunction with compatible fire alarm systems in all DOD facilities. During emergency situations, the objective is to broadcast real-time or prerecorded warnings to all building occupants or personnel in the immediate vicinity of a building. This capability is considered essential for reducing casualties in the event of an attack on military facilities. 

Although the project included numerous devices — such as addressable photoelectric smoke detectors, addressable heat detectors and wall-mounted speaker strobes — the installation was a straightforward mission for Freedom Communications. Aside from having to deal with the standard rigors of a fire/life-safety project of this magnitude, Banta says, “there weren’t too many challenges for us since we were able to design the system.” 

Utilizing the advanced capability of the 9600 panel, Freedom Communications broke each barrack down into two loops. “We basically started from scratch since the old system was being completely ripped out. When you are designing it yourself, and you know the codes for the military, it is not too much of a challenge to get the thing put in right.” 

Among the voice alert components, each barrack was outfitted with a mass notification control panel by Evax Systems. Banta says the military is an early adopter of technology that allows real-time or recorded mass notification capabilities to be used in conjunction with fire alarm systems. Each floor of the three-story barracks is outfitted with a 24V 8A power supply by Fire•Lite. “All of the power supplies get a ZNAC-4 module, which converts them to a Class A power supply,” Banta explains. “Everything at the base has to be Class A and that is the way we prefer it. That way, you always know when there is a problem in the field.” 

Codes and standards such as those of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) are a minimum starting point for military facilities, according to Michael Tucker, a chief fire inspector with the Fort Knox Fire Prevention Section. “Codes may be modified to improve performance as deemed necessary by the AHJ,” he says. 

Tucker says the military’s stringent anti-terrorism precautions do not allow for matters such as fire/life-safety installations to be discussed in public in fine detail. He did say the FACP and mass notification solution devices in the barracks must be installed without using wire splices, which, in part, is necessary to improve reliability. 

“There are many older fire alarm systems that have multiple wire splices and, as the systems age, problems occur. More times than not, the problem would be a wire splice,” Tucker says. Most of the wire runs are fairly short in the barracks, which essentially eliminated the need for splicing, he says. Importantly, the no-splicing mandate, Tucker says, “eliminates the possibility of wire tapping, which is prohibited.” 

Code Changes During Installation Means Integrator Must Be Flexible
Freedom Communications may not have faced any real challenges in the designing and installation of the solution, but the military’s labored efforts to fortify its facilities from unforeseen dangers did keep Banta and his team on their toes. A handful of code changes to the military’s anti-terrorism mass notification mandates were adopted during the four-month installation. Although Freedom Communications finished the project officially on time — the final barrack was completed in January after renovation delays not involved with installation — the code changes will mean wiring modifications and other work will be necessary. 

“They will have a code set and then they’ll say ‘well, maybe we should think about this a little more,’” Banta says. “It is all a learning process right now. W
e are not that far after 9/11 and I think that is why there are still some changes.”

One code change affecting the barracks installation centers on speaker strobes. Each of the residences is outfitted with 135 wall-mounted speaker strobes by System Sensor. Emergency personnel at the Fort Knox firehouse can broadcast to any of the barracks via live audio. There are also seven prerecorded notification messages that range from hazardous materials emergency, force protection threat, tornado warning and fire evacuation.

The ability to communicate in real-time via the speaker strobe is a cutting-edge feature of the installation, Banta says. “By putting it in with the fire alarm system, you’ve got one device controlling the audio for the fire alarm and the mass notification.”

However, the military now requires that a separate strobe be installed for mass notification to ensure building occupants are able to easily decipher it from a fire alarm. And because soldiers gather outside barrack entry/exit points and at close-by designated smoking areas, military code now requires external speaker horns be installed that achieve at least 76 decibels.

Despite project completion, Banta says the military is likely to adopt the new code change to allow for the external speakers. Again, because the military prohibits wire splices, Banta will have to make appropriate modifications.

“What you have to do is go back to the nearest speaker circuit. There is a break in that line at the device itself because that is how it is attached and you just simply extend on from that break,” he says. Banta adds that the code change for the separate mass notification strobe could eventually be grandfathered in, but for now the AHJ will accept the current scheme.

Another code change that dropped in Banta’s lap during the initial installation was two-tiered: microphones and HVAC shutdown switches at each entry/exit point. The new code calls for a microphone that is able to initiate any of the seven mass notification prerecorded messages that go with the system. The HVAC switch would allow for a simple and immediate shutdown in event of an air-born chemical emergency. Freedom Communications has a quote out for this work and is awaiting word if it will be awarded.

“If everything went exactly as planned from every job that you did, life would be good,” Banta says. “But if you expect that to happen you need to find a new job.”

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!

About the Author


Although Bosch’s name is quite familiar to those in the security industry, his previous experience has been in daily newspaper journalism. Prior to joining SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION in 2006, he spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times, where he performed a wide assortment of editorial responsibilities, including feature and metro department assignments as well as content producing for Bosch is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Mass Communication & Journalism. In 2007, he successfully completed the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s National Training School coursework to become a Certified Level I Alarm Technician.

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