How to Maximize Existing Fire Alarm Systems by Adding Intelligible Voice Communications

Get answers to questions on how to guide conversations about retrofitting existing fire alarm panels with mass notification capabilities.

Emergency communications are important to any public building – especially a heavily populated one. Audible communication that is easily heard and understood – or voice intelligibility – is a key component that is required by code on such systems.

Many factors go into the installation, maintenance and inspection of such systems. Special consideration is needed for those systems that combine emergency and life-safety communications with fire detection and protection systems.

Following are some questions and answers to guide conversations about retrofitting existing fire alarm panels with mass notification capabilities.

What are some of the advantages of adding voice communication capabilities to an existing fire alarm panel?
Most buildings are required by law to contain fire detection and protection systems. Wiring for these system components and speakers, which are located throughout an entire building, can also be utilized to deliver far-reaching messages related to fire, terrorist activities, other dangerous situations, accidents and natural disasters. In short, employing such systems can eliminate the need to use additional space or incur costs associated with installing and maintaining separate fire and emergency voice panels.

In addition, combining varied message delivery methods, from visual warnings to audible alerts, creates a multi-layered communication approach which increases the likelihood of recipients responding appropriately and effectively to life safety events.

Voice fire alarm systems are frequently installed in larger buildings such as office high-rises, hotels or hospitals. Can these systems also work in small- to medium-sized buildings?
They certainly can, and are sized to meet the buildings’ footprint and occupancy needs. Banquet halls, movie theaters, churches and schools are just some of the types of buildings that might opt to add intelligent voice communications to their existing fire alarm panels instead of purchasing higher end, larger panels that are more than what they need.

Other small facilities like retail shops or medical offices that sometimes use only horn appliances for audible signaling might also wish to add a voice component to their fire alarm system. This can allow them to also tailor specific emergency communications to various life safety events.

If a paging system already exists, why not just use it for communicating urgent messages?
Unfortunately, people often tend to tune out messages sent through a paging system. In addition, paging systems are not required to cover all areas, in contrast to fire alarm systems that are required to notify all areas of a building.

A fire alarm system is continuously supervised and required to be maintained, unlike a paging system. Also, fire alarms and associated voice capabilities are typically housed in central locations with the option of remote local operating consoles, which are more tamper-resistant and secure. By contrast, the location of and accessibility to the main paging system console is often only in one location.

Are there special requirements for speaker installation for a fire alarm system?
Speakers should be spaced according to intelligibility and not decibel rating only. The minimum decibel notification requirement for business occupancy is 60dB or 15dB above ambient level; for residential occupancy [i.e., hotels or dormitories], at least 70dB or 15dB above ambient level.

Installing more speakers at lower wattage taps typically results in better intelligibility and reduced distortion, and makes more efficient use of amplifier capacity. High fidelity speakers should be used with the widest frequency range [300-8,000Hz], to reproduce sounds clearly. Note that the speakers must be UL listed with the fire alarm voice evacuation system.

High ceiling areas should use directional speakers to avoid interaction with other signals and increase clarity of signal for the listener. Spacing should not exceed 30 feet from the listener. Ceiling speaker distribution guidelines from NEMA SB 50

Is there a suggested microphone technique that should be used?
Just as important as the quality of the sound system is the clarity of the message given. Movement and distance of the microphone, tone, and speaker volume can greatly affect the intelligibility of the final message. Training response personnel ahead of time and providing them with scripted messages can help in an emergency.

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