How Guard Tour System Monitoring Plays Into Life Safety

The physical presence of security guards or off-duty law enforcement officers working as guards creates a high level of trust and security among the population. Security patrols also tell mall shoppers and others that this facility and the immediate area are well protected. And after hours, these same guards often act as an early warning system when a fire starts in an unoccupied structure. 

“The guard service commonly associated with proprietary station fire alarm systems originates in the history of fire alarm systems. In fact, guard service (formerly known as fire watch) arguably served as the first fire detectors,” according to “Fire Alarm Systems Design & Installation,” published by the National Training Center of Las Vegas. 

In real life the purpose of the guard tour service involves the detection of fire and other hazardous situations that represent a risk to property and life. In most instances a record of a guard’s rounds is maintained in some manner, either via the facility fire alarm or a separate guard tour system. 

The after-the-fact purpose may be more related to manpower oversight than fire protection, but there is no doubt that the real-time purpose relates to property protection and life safety — both of which are elements of the fire protection mission. 

This month, we talk about the guard tour mission and how it relates to the fire alarm market. I provide a historical perspective as well as fire code references that pertain to the fire technician’s job as it relates to this little understood area of the protected premises fire alarm system.

NFPA 72 Specifies Guard Tours
A protected premises fire alarm system is a fire alarm system that sounds an alarm at the protected premises because of a manual activation of a fire alarm box (manual fire pull) or automatic detection of apparatus or other systems designed to detect the characteristics of fire in the environment. Included are sprinkler systems, special hazards systems and smoke/heat detectors. 

In Section 6.3 of NFPA 72, 2002 Edition, there’s a shopping list of elements, at least one of which is required for a code-compliant premises fire alarm system. Number eight is Guard’s tour supervisory service

In many cases the guard tour portion of a protected premises fire alarm system involves the use of a supervising or central station facility. When this is the case, the flavor of guard tour is then referred to as guard’s tour supervisory service. 

Supervision of mobile patrols is essentially maintained by logging a security guard’s physical presence at strategic locations throughout a facility. Historically, a guard’s route was tracked using a mechanical watch-clock that the security officer wound at each stop. These clocks recorded the date, time and stop location. 

These wind-up watch-clocks used a mechanical key that was fastened to the physical structure of the facility. To log the data to the clock, the guard inserted the key and turned it. Then, at the end of each day, the paper roll inside the clock was removed and stored for future review. 

The problem with these mechanical, wind-up systems is that security guards can easily circumvent the process by taking the clock apart and inserting the key, winding, and doing so at each stop at the beginning of a shift. 

One way to remedy that problem is to use an electronic system to record the security guard’s actions. Today, many of the premises fire alarm systems on the market can be expanded to include the guard tour feature, as covered in Section 6.3(8) of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code (NFAC), 2002 Edition. 

It may seem odd to fire alarm technicians that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) would sanction the inclusion of the guard tour function with that of life safety, but this is exactly the case. “Combination manual fire alarm boxes and guard’s signaling stations shall be permitted” (Section 5.12.2, NFPA 72, 2002). 

Because these systems operate using a computerized clock, security personnel must physically visit each data device location in an established order for the system to properly log them to memory. 

This has all but eliminated any possibility of manipulation. I say “all but eliminates” because no matter what you do, there will always be a relatively small percentage of individuals who have the knowledge and tools necessary to compromise any electronic system. 

Guard Tour Procedures
NFPA 72 also prescribes how a guard tour must function when the security guard fails to make rounds at the appointed times: “Upon failure to receive a guard’s tour supervisory signal within a 15-minute maximum grace period, the central station shall perform the following actions: 1) Communicate without unreasonable delay with personnel at the protected premises, 2) Dispatch a runner to the protected premises to arrive within 30 minutes of the delinquency if communications cannot be established, and 3) Report all delinquencies to the subscriber or authority having jurisdiction, or both, if required.” 

Today’s guard tour systems consist of a handheld reader that, through a variety of technologies, can read and store the location of data devices which are called a guard tour reporting station (Section 3.3.79, NFPA 72, 2002). These data devices, which are located throughout a building, are used to document the time of each visit. 

The data devices come in a variety of shapes, sizes and technologies. Some of the most common include touch buttons that contain memory chips, bar-coded stripes and radio-based chips. 

Guard Tour Technologies
There are two basic types of guard tour readers on the market today: contact and contactless

Contact-type readers are handheld devices, often referred to as wands, that collect and store location data when they come into contact with either a touch button or some other device. These readers rely on the flow of digital data using a metallic connection. 

Contactless guard tour readers come in several technologies. When using a bar-coded strip, the reader wand will usually contain an infrared laser that has the ability of scanning and reading a barcode. RFID-type reader wands are able to read a data device at a distance. This is done through exciting a memory chip inside a RFID card, which will then transmit a location code to the reader.

In most systems, a booklet of additional data devices that equate to incident codes is also carried by the security officer. This enables them to make note of other issues that need management’s attention during the course of their guard tour. When the officer encounters a problem while executing his or her duties, they will scan the appropriate data device. The incident data is then recorded in memory for later review. 

Be sure to read next month’s “Fire Side Chat” when we’ll talk about how to become NICET certified. NICET certification is becoming a requirement for the installation of code-compliant fire alarm systems by architects, electrical engineers and jurisdictions across the nation.

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