Monthly Archives: July 2014

Fire Alarms Save Lives, But Not Without Fire Fighter Frustrations

FFWe’re all familiar with a fire alarm—the blaring, the strobe lights and the reverberation of noise. When we’re inside a building and one goes off, we exit as quickly as possible, searching for safety and refuge from that deafening sound.

Firefighters don’t have that luxury. In fact, their livelihood depends on their ability to identify the origination of fumes and keep everyone from harm.

Upon entering a building, the first thing they have to do is locate the alarm—a task not as easy as it sounds. Firefighters have to first locate the fire alarm control panel, which is usually tucked away in the back closet of the building, according to Ben Racho, a firefighter in Westport, Connecticut. They then have to figure out how to turn it off, which is complicated by the fact that there are numerous makes and models on the market.

“It’s extremely distracting,” Racho explains. “We can still concentrate, but at three in the morning, guys start getting crabby.”

“We’ve seen fire alarm systems that are 30-years-old and don’t have displays on them. The alarm’s going off and we don’t know why,” he says. “One of our frustrations is that every system is different.”

Dealing with loud alarms is just one of the many challenges firefighters face each time they respond to a call. Let’s explore some other common grievances and how they can be rectified.

Indecipherable Systems

Problem: In addition to their loudness, old systems can also be labeled incorrectly, something that impedes investigations.

“Some will have things written down on them—like Zone 1, 5 and 8—but we have no idea what those mean,” Racho says, “so we have to search throughout the building to find the event regardless.”

Solution: With nearly 50 years of firefighting under his belt in California, Idaho, Missouri and Arkansas, Phil Johnston is in a position to offer advice on how to eliminate this kind of problem. By simply providing individual labels, legends or other appropriate markings that immediately show the areas and zones protected by the system, alarm activation can be quickly matched to the source.

False Alarms

Problem: Fire alarms may be prevalent, but 99.99 percent of the time, they are nuisance alarms that aren’t real, according to Gary Watlington of FireProof Safety Solutions.

“But we still have to respond,” he says, because you never know when someone’s life might be at risk.

Alarm systems are becoming increasingly affordable and, as such, continually installed. More alarms, however, mean more false alarms. Whenever an alarm sounds, firefighters have to check it out and ensure the scene is secure. In the case of false alarms, that means that fire engines and manpower are tied up elsewhere and those resources can’t be directed toward other concurrent emergencies.

Solution: The good news is false alarms can be prevented easily. Some owners figure that once a fire alarm is installed, the job is done. But like any other piece of technology, they need to be maintained.

“Provide preventative maintenance on a scheduled basis by trained and licensed personnel and your system will have a much greater chance of functioning properly,” Johnston says.

Watlington adds that business owners should have their systems inspected, tested and maintained on a yearly basis to ensure that wiring and devices are kept up to date. Additionally, since false alarms are usually smoke-related, owners should keep in mind that if construction projects are going on that produce dust or particles, there’s a chance an alarm can be falsely activated. Individuals should take precaution to disable the alarm temporarily by contacting the alarm system service company.

The Uninformed Owner

Problem: While Racho, Johnston and Watlington agree that legacy fire alarms preclude firefighters from completing their jobs, there are also problems relating to apathetic, uneducated property owners and landlords. After all, how many owners actually think their apartment complexes, strip malls or office buildings will go up in flames?

“It’s very frustrating when we get there and people have already reset their alarms,” Racho says. “We need to know what detector went off to make sure everything’s okay.”

Solution: All of these apathy-related problems can be easily remedied through education.

“The majority of people simply don’t understand how fast fires develop and spread,” Watlington says. “Fires can develop in any room and in today’s home and business construction, once a fire is detected, there can be as little as one to two minutes to safely escape the hazardous environment.”

While commercial property owners don’t want to be inconvenienced, it’s important to remember why alarms exist in the first place: to protect building occupants. Because of that, the technology shouldn’t be neglected. Forward-thinking owners should spend time getting to know their systems by reading the manuals and writing down their codes.

These individuals also need to remember something that might seem like a no-brainer: When the fire alarm sounds off, it means you’ve got to get out of the building. Should that happen, it’s important to wait until the fire department arrives to reset the alarm.

What’s your pet peeve? Sound off on your biggest frustration when dealing with fire alarm systems…

Battery Calculations Critical to Occupant Safety

A fire alarm system needs to remain operational in the event of emergency situations such as storms, power outages, etc. A critical element to keeping the fire alarm system operational is secondary power / backup battery power. NFPA 72 requires that fire alarm systems employ a secondary power source:

Section of NFPA 72, 2013 Edition

The secondary power supply shall have sufficient capacity to operate a system in non-alarm condition for a minimum of 24 hours.  At the end of this period, the system shall operate all alarm notification appliances used for evacuation or direct aid for a minimum of 5 minutes.  Battery calculations shall also include a 20 percent safety margin to the am-hour rating.  This is to ensure that the secondary power does have enough amp-hour rating to drive the system for the minimum non-alarm and alarm time.

Different types of systems may require different standby and alarm times. For example, in-building mass notification systems require 24 hour non-alarm battery backup with 15 minutes alarm time. Local codes and the AHJ can also dictate secondary power requirements. Be sure to find out what is required for your area.

skstBattery calculations are necessary to ensure sufficient backup power is available where primary power is lost. In addition, incomplete or incorrect battery calculations are one of the most common causes for the rejection of a submittal. Silent Knight is here to help with battery calculation worksheets in the product manuals, Excel spreadsheets and the SKST Silent Knight Selection Tool.

Mark Indgjer is the Technical Support Supervisor for Silent Knight.  Mark joined Silent Knight in 1988 and is responsible for technical support and application engineering.  Mark is also NICET Level II certified.

Training Online, On Your Schedule, 24/7

Every day fire alarm technicians find themselves in front of control panels they have had little or no training on. Silesk online trainingnt Knight can fill that void with their online training courses.  These courses cover the basics of installation and programming. The course ends with an online test that ensures the technician has grasped the important concepts. Better yet, these courses are accessible 24/7 and can be taken at your leisure. New courses are continually being added and updated.

Increase your efficiency on your next installation or service call by taking an online course today.  Click here to view a list of online courses.

Brian Brownell has worked within the fire alarm industry for 30 years and joined Silent Knight three years ago as technical trainer.

NFPA 72 2013 Brings Big Changes to Central Station Communications

One of the fire alarm industry’s more significant changes in recent years has been the updates to the NFPA 72 2013 code for central station communications. It is vital that fire alarm dealers understand the evolution of these requirements, which will have a significant impact on the entire industry in the coming years.
atomicfirehat image from 4G sellsheet
Changes in the Technology

The way fire panels communicate to a central station is undergoing significant changes in the future. For more than 40 years, plain old telephone systems (POTS) had been used for fire alarm communications. Today, analog POTS are becoming an obsolete technology and eventually will be phased out. Even the FCC says POTS is not sustainable, and AT&T agrees the technology is past its prime.

The transition away from POTS technology to alternative communication methods impacts the use of the traditional digital alarm communicator transmitters (DACTs) that are widely used in most fire panels on the market today. Fire alarm dealers and installers should be aware of this shift, which will begin to impact the type of technology that can be used in new installations. It will also have an impact on existing fire alarm panel installations that currently communicate over POTS and will need to be retrofitted to an alternative form of communications.

What Code do I have to comply with?

If you have decided to move away from POTS lines and have been investigating using alternative communication for your Fire Alarm system, the best place to start is to check with your local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) to understand the local code requirements. Different jurisdictions commonly adopt various versions of NFPA 72 code. Understanding your local code requirements will help you select the correct technology to meet your local AHJ requirements and help you speed up the inspection process for your fire installation. It will also help you better meet your customer’s needs while helping them save on costs by providing them with the best technology for their installations.  Here is a closer look at the NFPA 72 codes that govern central station communication for fire alarm systems.

NFPA 72 version 2010 Basics

Chapter 26 of the NFPA 72 version 2010 standard helps define some of the communication methods for central station reporting that are acceptable. This is an important part of the POTS conversation because it specifies many of the alternative communication methods that can be used and are rapidly replacing POTS lines. It also clearly states that there is nothing in Chapter 26 of the 2010 standard that prohibits the use of alternative communications technology. Here are some of the highlights of the standard.

  • ​NFPA 72 does allow for the use of alternate communications technology, including cellular or IP, for central station reporting.
  • The code requires that any alternate communication technology must provide a level of reliability and supervision consistent with the requirements listed in Chapter 10.
  • When using a single communication technology, the central station must annunciate a trouble within 5 minutes after loss of communication
  • When using multiple communication technologies, the central station must annunciate a trouble within 24 hours after a loss of communication.

This is good news. NFPA 72 specifically allows for IP and/or cellular communication with central stations, and also ensures that our modern fire alarm systems still have the same level of reliability and supervision POTS has provided for four decades.

So what has changed for 2013?

The NFPA 72 code was updated in 2013 and impacts the use of POTS lines in a fire alarm installation, as well as the supervision requirements for single or multiple path technologies.

The 2013 version of NFPA 72 code includes some changes that will impact the primary and secondary POTS lines in an installation. If you have a primary POTS connection, and you’re under 2013 jurisdiction, you’re now required by the code to seek out alternative communication methods as a backup to the POTS Lines. This could be a one-way private radio alarm system, a two-way RF multiplex system or any transmission means that comply with NPFA 72 version 2013, such as IP and cellular. A secondary POTS line is not permitted for multi-path communications unless there is no cellular, IP or radio available in the area. In addition, you will find that some of the supervision requirements have been changed in version 2013 of the code. Here’s a summary of those changes.

  • ​When using a single communication technology, the central station must annunciate a trouble within 60 minutes after loss of communication
  • When using multiple communication technologies, the central station must annunciate a trouble within 6 hours after loss of communication.


About the Author
Ken Gentile is a Product Manager for Fire-Lite Alarms and Honeywell Power. Using his more than 15 years of marketing and engineering experience, Ken’s primary focus lies in the development of new products.

ANSI/UL 2572 Mass Notification Standard Defined (in 100 Words)

Thee American National Standard Institute (ANSI) and Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) approved the UL/ANSI 2572 Standard for Control and Communications Units of Mass Notification Systems as a true standard to which all emergency communication/mass notification system (MNS) components should be tested, effective April 10, 2015.

A UL label cannot be affixed to MNS equipment unless listed to the ANSI/UL 2572 Standard. A listing to this Standard is a significant indicator that a particular MNS has undergone stringent testing by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory and proven itself to be capable of executing the mass notification duties it is intended to perform.

About the Author
Beth Welch is the Manager of Public Relations for Honeywell Fire Systems. For a decade, she has strived to raise awareness of new technologies, industry trends and information, for the benefit of engineers, integrators and end users.   ​