Putting the Future of Signal and Data Transmission Possibilities Into Focus

Looking into how tomorrow the technology of today will impact the alarm systems of tomorrow.

While I may not have an actual crystal ball, let’s attempt to pry back the veil of the future, at least just a bit, and look at how today’s rapidly evolving technology might impact the alarm systems of tomorrow. I’ve addressed both wired and wireless systems in the past, and have also reported on myriad tradeshows including the biannual Essen Security expo in Essen, Germany, in which early security trends are often spotted.

Speaking of prognostication, in 1965 Gordon E. Moore wrote a paper that based on his observations the performance of computing transistors had doubled and would continue to double every 18 months. This became known as Moore’s Law. The same is said about changes to technology in general. The systems installed by fire alarm industry professionals in 1940 were not the same as installed in 1960, and they looked different again by 1970 and so forth. So just think, the systems we’re seeing in the industry today will not be the same as those installed by 2020.

For a number of years, NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code has allowed the use of two-way and one-way radio, as well as cellular and IP in addition to plain old telephone service (POTS). By now it is fairly well recognized by the industry that POTS is going away and with it the use of the traditional digital alarm communicator transmitter (DACT). Depending on where your business is located there are still a number of authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) that are anchored with requiring POTS and DACTs. Technology advancements and the telcos are not going to be holding back just because an AHJ says phone lines are still required in their jurisdiction. I think it’s safe to say that there are not too many McCulloch or directly connected circuits in use today. When I started in the fire alarm and intrusion detection industry in 1974, these were the two primary means of signal transport.

DIY/MIY Market Raises New Issues

Wireless and IP, or a combination of implementing both technologies, is the trend for the future. If you have not adopted these means of signal transport yet, it should be an action item for 2016. The networks that are available today are as reliable if not more reliable than POTS. Now, having stated this I wish to be clear that I do not see the transmission of fire alarm signal traffic through a non-managed facility. The requirement for a 99.999% reliability still needs to be met. Some of the means that are available for the residential do it yourself (DIY) products are not permitted at this time for non-household fire alarm systems.

More Fire Side Chat: For the Alarm Industry, 2016 is Chock-full of NFPA Code Talk

The DIY market is expanding. There is also MIY, or monitor it yourself, which is a concern within the intrusion detection industry. With MIY, the homeowner would receive a signal and/or video feed from their smartphone of an event that may be taking place at their home. Based on the information that is being transmitted, they can call someone, including local law enforcement.

But what about a residential fire alarm system? Is it proper for a homeowner to call the local fire department after they receive an indication of a fire or CO alarm on their smartphone? This is not addressed within NFPA 72, nor is it addressed by the model codes that are used in the United States. It is estimated that by the end of 2016 there will be 2 billion smartphones in operation. This is now 2 billion potential offsite monitoring stations.

If an end user were to receive a signal from their home and subsequently a video that showed smoke in the home, it would probably be a fair assessment that there is a fire and a call to the local fire department would be in order. But what about when there’s a signal from a smoke or CO detector and there is no other indication that there was a fire? Should this then warrant a call to the local fire department? Such activity may lead to an increase with unwanted alarms. Should the same be allowed for a commercial location? The technology is here today. I would say no, but those that are not aware of the requirements that are within the current codes and standards may not see such issues.

The amount of devices and systems in a “smart building” that can potentially communicate with a life-safety system has expanded with the advent of the Internet of Things, but the reliability of wireless communications remains a concern in the commercial sector.

How Will Internet of Things Impact Commercial?

In January, I attended for the first time the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. This is a very large show, with exhibits ranging from home entertainment to automation, security, robotics and much more. It is full of new technology, and a key phase that could be found throughout the Las Vegas Convention Center and Sands Expo is the Internet of Things (IoT). The security-related vendors that were showing products at the CES are not the same that you see at an ISC or NFPA expo, however. While the emphasis is the consumer and therefore predominantly the residential market, the technology can be ported to commercial venues very rapidly.

The IoT is the interconnection and interoperability of devices and electronic systems within a building communicating with each other. For a home that could be the refrigerator, stove, heater, air conditioning, appliances, door bells, locks, leak detection and security/fire. For a commercial building this can be applied to the HVAC system, access control, CCTV, security and fire – aka the “smart building.”

With interoperability, the connected devices are “talking” to each other and depending on what one might “see,” others then might be triggered to take various actions. This may include the transmission of the signals to the local authorities. These systems and the smart detectors within can also be data collection points. During a fire alarm information that could be sent to the responding units might include floor plans, hazmat details, camera feeds and occupant locations.

These concepts are yet to be addressed in any of the model codes. The NFPA through its Fire Protection Research Foundation is just now beginning to look at this impact. Reliability concerns must be addressed and recognized standards will need to be either adopted or promulgated. A number of these systems employ ZigBee, Z-Wave or Wi-Fi as chief wireless methods for devices to communicate with each other. Are these means acceptable to be used with life-safety systems?

Research has indicated that 79% of Millennials are incorporating at least some form of these new technologies in their homes, and 76% of their parents are also now using some of this technology in their homes. It is only a matter of time before the move is made into the commercial arena.

Technology Honing In on More Exacting Details

For the past 10 years I have been a firm believer that inevitably all detection devices that are part of a life-safety system will be wireless. I still hold to this forecast and predict this occurring within the next five to seven years. The majority of systems shown in Europe at the past Essen Security expo were wireless, and I am now seeing these products make their way over the Atlantic. The technology that is being used at this time for a commercial life-safety system is mesh radio or other means of low-power wireless. I suspect that as the technology from the so-called connected home migrates to the connected building, so too will the previously mentioned forms of connectivity.

As the shift is made to wireless detectors as well as addressable detectors, the exact location of the alarm can
be transmitted from the protected premises to the supervising station. Many fire departments are now requiring that the information on the exact device that caused the alarm be provided during the dispatch process.

The Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) has been working on ASAP to PSAP (Automated Secure Alarm Protocol to Public Safety Answering Point) service, in which the supervising station can send information on the alarm and location of the alarm directly to a Public Safety CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) system. I think eventually the acceptance of this by the PSAPs will increase and it will become a preferred way of transferring data from a protected premises through a supervising station. I do not foresee this means of communication being permitted from a smartphone in the near future.

We’ve only addressed a small percentage of new technology. Changes with sensors, aspiration systems, video detection and notification appliances are also occurring, to name a few. The fire alarm industry is moving at such rapid speed that you must always keep an eye on what’s happening and how such technology changes might influence your business. One thing we know remains certain: Moore’s Law is alive and well.

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About the Author


Shane Clary, Ph.D., is Security Sales & Integration’s “Fire Side Chat” columnist. He has more than 37 years of security and fire alarm industry experience. He serves on a number of NFPA technical committees, and is vice president of Codes and Standards Compliance for Pancheco, Calif.-based Bay Alarm Co.

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