Looking at Lockout Ethics, Poor Terminations and Wireless Detection

In this edition of Fire Side Chat, we shall explore several issues that are dear to the hearts and pocketbooks of all fire alarm companies. We will talk about lockout codes, intermittent operation due to poor terminations and the use of wireless radio in fire detection.

The Ethics of Lockout Codes
Is it right for a fire/burglar alarm company to lock their alarm panels so other dealers cannot get into their programming? This author encountered a security dealer in Canton, Ohio, who is quite famous for this unethical antic.

I have a 15-year-old alarm system and recently I decided to replace the original alarm company with a new one. The new company, however, was unable to accommodate me because of a “lockout code” which prevented them from programming the alarm panel. What can I do to force the original company to remove the lockout so I can use my alarm panel?

This question recently appeared in a popular newsgroup that is frequented by professional alarm installers. This author encountered a problem like this in Canton, Ohio, where the owner of a building asked him to take over their alarm account. The only problem was the panel contained a lockout code that prevented such a changeover.

I had the building’s owner call and ask the original alarm dealer to release the panel. The next day, that dealer called the owner back to say he had released it via remote programming. The only problem was that my technicians were unable to enter the panel’s programming. The programmer indicated the presence of a foreign lockout code, which meant that it was not factory default.

After struggling with the situation for a couple of days, the motherboard was removed from the metal can and taken to the office of the original installer. After applying a charged battery, the owner of that firm connected the programmer to the motherboard. He almost immediately indicated that something was wrong with the panel, asking me what I had done to it.

What he actually did, however, was plug the programmer into the modular telephone plug that services the digital alarm communicator transmitter (DACT) instead of the programmer data port. I simply reached over and removed the modular plug, then placed the programming jack into the data port. The dealer in question then had no choice but to remove the lockout code. Obviously, he did not want me to assume control of the panel.

The question is this — are we justified as alarm installers when we invoke a lockout code that can potentially deny the owner of a panel the right to go elsewhere for service? “The only legitimate function I can see for the lockout enable is to provide some small measure of protection against theft for panels that are only being leased to a customer,” says Robert Campbell, owner of Home Security Metal Products, located in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The difference between an “installer code” and a “lockout code” is simple. When an installer code is used, if the original installer turns out to be a sore loser and will not give out the code — or if the original installer is no longer available — the new company can usually default the motherboard and start over. A lockout code, on the other hand, is a permanent method of protection. That means that nothing the new firm can do will allow them to enter programming.

“I do believe that this whole issue of lockout enable is something that could potentially give our industry another black eye,” says Campbell.

After some discussion with Campbell, this author is in agreement.

Low-Power Radio Ready for Airtime
Through the years, wireless means of detection have often been met with skepticism, confusion and, sometimes, contempt. Unlike the problems security dealers faced in the early years of wireless protection, today’s wireless products are safe and secure — not only for use in burglar alarm applications, but also for fire detection. Wireless manufacturers have done their homework and created reliable, well-supervised products that are more than up to the task.

In fire detection, the rightful description associated with this technology is phrased low-power radio. In Section A.6.16 (page 262) of the National Fire Alarm Code Handbook 2002, “The term wireless has been replaced with the term low-power radioto eliminate potential confusion with other transmission media such as optical fiber cables.”

Security dealers and fire technicians often express concern over using low-power radio for fire detection. Some confusion still exists whether wireless radio is allowed by NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, 1999 Edition. The answer is yes, it most certainly is. However, the wireless radio system utilized must be listed for Protected Premises fire detection by a third-party testing firm.

“Compliance with Section 3-10 shall require the use of low-power radio equipment specifically listed for the purpose.” (Section 3-10.1, NFPA 72, 1999).

For example, dry cell batteries are acceptable as a primary means of power for low-power radio devices, providing there is one transmitter for each fire detection device. In addition, each transmitter must report to the central alarm panel individually.

The battery also must have the inherent capacity to power the transmitter for a minimum of one year. Once the battery depletion threshold is reached, there must be enough power left in the battery to send a supervisory signal to the central alarm panel. This supervisory signal must take place before the battery is unable to transmit an alarm signal after seven more days of non-alarm operation.

This supervisory signal must be different from any other signal, such as an alarm, and the affected transmitter must be clearly identified so the end user, as well as fire technician, can quickly attend to the replacement of the battery. Once silenced, however, the central control panel must resound the supervisory signal at least once every four hours so the low-battery condition cannot be inadvertently forgotten.

That’s not all. In addition to the above conditions, if an open or shorted condition should occur, the failure of the transmitter battery must result in a trouble signal at the central alarm panel. The transmitter must be identified and, when silenced, the trouble signal resounded at least once every four hours. This, of course, is a matter of each transmitter sending periodic signals, called passive polling, that allows the central alarm panel to know that said transmitter is alive and all is well — or not well, whichever the case may be.

Last but not least, a catastrophic battery failure or any other kind of failure within a transmitter must not effect the operation of other transmitters in the system. Also, wireless systems listed for use in residential dwellings cannot be employed in commercial settings that fall under the heading of Protected Premises.

For more information on low-power radio fire alarm systems, read Section 3-10, NFPA 72, 1999 Edition or Section 6-16 of 2002 National Fire Alarm Handbook. If you do not have a codebook, you can purchase one from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), located at One Batterymarch Park, Quincy, Mass., 02269, or visit them on the Web at www.nfpa.org.

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