Breakthroughs in Fire Alarm Panels

Advancements in addressable technology in the fire detection market have provided fire technicians with new and exciting fire products that can   not only save lives, but make service a whole lot easier. In addition, end users like addressable systems because they save time and eliminate guesswork when a trouble condition or an alarm occurs.

Savvy fire alarm companies have already done their homework in this regard. Those who have yet to take the addressable plunge should know that it is never too late to dive in – the water’s fine.

A significant portion of the research and development that has taken place in today’s life-safety market involves four basic areas:

1. The availability of more, better-organized information through addressable technology and advancements in embedded processing.

2. More efficient and intelligent fire devices with greater processing and decision power.

3. Advanced processing that enables addressable control systems to better discern valid alarms from unwanted ones.

4. The implementation of new and improved user interfaces that enable a more intelligent, faster response by those in positions of authority.

Faster, More Efficient Fire Alarm Control Panels Save Time, Lives

When a fire breaks out in a structure, the occupants must be alerted at the earliest, most opportune moment. This will hopefully enable them to take appropriate action in a timelier manner than might otherwise be possible. This is most important because, in a fire situation, seconds often mean the difference between living and dying for both firefighters and those who occupy the structure.

One way fire equipment manufacturers have improved the chances of survival is by making fire alarm control panels (FACPs) smarter and more capable of collecting and reporting a lot of information that was not available a few years ago. Toward this end, the industry is rapidly moving toward a fully addressable, multiplex solution with advanced data processing.

Here, each initiating device individually reports to the central processing unit (CPU) within the FACP or a sub-controller in the system. In addition to knowing which sensor it is, the FACP can tell you the sensitivity of a smoke detector, its location and the ambient temperature in the vicinity of the detector. The immediate benefit is more in-depth information.

Another trend is toward enhanced data storage and rapid information retrieval in both conventional and addressable environments. Speedy and accurate information is crucial when a fire is detected because seconds count.

The addressable approach can also be used when specifying and installing individual and banked relays as well as notification appliance circuits (NACs), which are typically found in large systems. In some larger systems, NAC devices can be addressed and connected to the same data bus that carries data to and from initiating devices.

Networks Allow Subsystems to Report to Central System

Today, there is movement in the fire industry toward a proprietary network environment. This is especially true in large facilities that employ large central FACPs with a series of small subpanels positioned throughout the location.

In such a facility, the use of a single, solitary control panel is usually impractical or simply inefficient. In this case, large-scale systems employ subpanels that interface with a central head end through a proprietary data bus, such as a RS-485. Sometimes, these subpanels are nothing more than individual alarm control panels equipped with the necessary firmware, software and network interface required for a data connection.

In large, high-rise facilities and campus-style installations, each building may contain its own fire detection system. Each system will operate as its own self-contained fire alarm system. Through the network connection, however, they are able to report to a central head-end system. Sometimes, programming can also be performed from the central head end. This is especially handy when centralized command and control is required from one location, such as a security office somewhere in the high-rise or on campus.

Although most of the fire alarm systems involving network technology are addressable, there are large conventional installations that use the same approach. This is a relatively recent phenomenon addressed in Section 3-8.1, NFPA 72, 2000 edition:

Fire alarm systems shall be permitted to be either integrated systems combining all detection, notification and auxiliary functions in a single system or a combination of component subsystems. Fire alarm system components shall be permitted to share control equipment or shall be able to operate as standalone subsystems, but, in any case, they shall be arranged to function as a single system.  All component subsystems shall be capable of simultaneous, full-load operation without degradation of the required, overall system performance.

The method of employing subsystems with a central head end is commonly referred to as distributed intelligence, or distributed processing.

Distributed Intelligence Provides More Information to More People

In either addressable or conventional systems, distributed processing is used because of its exceptional fault tolerance capability. In large installations, it is often a good idea to compartmentalize fire detection and reporting operations so a catastrophic failure in one portion of the system cannot adversely affect operation in others.

Through the use of distributed intelligence, fire panel manufacturers can better assure the survivability of both the occupants of a burning building and life-safety functions. Survivability is promoted by the use of a network-style operating environment designed to link multiple FACPs to a central processing system, sometimes called a host.

During normal operations, the host is able to perform command and control functions as well as programming any time, day or night. Connection to each individual subsystem is supported by a proprietary data network that allows management to readily access data, determine status and perform report generation as needed.

Because this type of system uses distributed processing, each subsystem is capable of standalone operation if something should happen to either the host or the network connection. In many cases, the affected subsystem is an operational FACP, complete with initiating device circuits (IDCs) and/or signaling line circuits (SLCs) as well as NACs.

It is permissible to interconnect a number of subsystems to a central head-end panel using a proprietary data network, or by the use of dry contacts. This is permitted by virtue of NFPA 72, Section 3-8.1.1:

The method of interconnection of control units shall meet the monitoring requirements of 1-5.8 and NFPA 70, National Electrical Code, Article 760, and shall be achieved by the following recognized means:

(1) Electrical contacts listed for the connected load.

(2) Listed digital data interfaces (such as serial communications ports and gateways).

(3) Other listed methods.

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