Commercial fire systems travel cautious road to integration

Within the next few years, some predict commercial fire will integrate with security and building controls
Thursday, April 1, 2004

While few in the industry will argue that security and IT systems are integrating, the debate continues on whether or how quickly commercial fire systems will become integrated with security, access control and building systems.

The code-driven nature of fire alarm and detection systems, along with the historical separation of fire from other applications, has made integration occur more slowly and cautiously.

Yet most who work in that arena see some form of integration coming to pass.

“It’s the future of the business,” stated Tim Snow, president of Copperstate Technologies, Glendale, Ariz., a fire system design, engineering and installation firm. While not a perfect system yet, Snow said technological advancements on the fire/life safety side are making integration a viable option.

And, he noted, “customers are looking for a sole source of business from their vendors,” referring to the option to integrate fire/life safety with security, HVAC and audio systems.

Snow pointed to a number of projects Copperstate has undertaken in recent years that brought fire and life safety systems together with other components, such as doors for access control, cameras from CCTV systems to record where the smoke or fire is coming from, HVAC exhaust systems to control smoke and, in the case of a theater, integration with the audio system to provide evacuation information when needed.

“We’re seeing more and more of this,” Snow said. “Because it is out there, it becomes a conducive way for things to work on a common platform.”

The move toward integration for Notifier has been going on for about seven to 10 years, said Nick Martello, director of marketing.

He said the use of BACnet, a data communication protocol for building automation and control networks, has permitted fire system information to graphically interface with a building’s HVAC system. In addition, Martello said, “we’re currently working on interfaces with other things,” such as access control and CCTV, not just for their own fire panels, but for competing ones as well.

“In the past, security drove integration,” Martello said. But recently, he noted, fire systems manufacturers are offering the backbone.

Snow concurred that because fire/life safety is the driving force within a building, “it becomes the backbone for one platform for communication.”

Within smaller installations, integration is less of a factor, said Jeff Hendrickson, director of marketing for Fire-Lite and Silent Knight. “When you look at the size of jobs, the largest (ones) are more involved with integration,” he said. Yet integration, he said, “is moving down market.”

However, Hendrickson said in the applications he sees, fire/life safety doesn’t serve as the backbone for integration. Rather, the dominant systems of HVAC, security and access control “serve as the backbone, but there would be monitoring of the fire system.”

AHJs are also a factor in how quickly integration takes place, he said. “They have strong opinions that fire is special and separate,” Hendrickson said.

“The primary person that has to be satisfied is the AHJ,” concurred Copperstate’s Snow. And the primary interest for AHJs is that a system is UL listed, he said.

Rather than see integration as a problem, Snow said most AHJs “would love nothing more than to have one source of communication to deal with.”

If you put security, fire/life safety and HVAC on one panel, Snow said, “they just have to look at one point.”

For others in the fire/life safety marketplace, the view of integration is more cautious and the barriers more pronounced.

While integration with buildings systems via BACnet is “gaining some traction,” John Haynes, director of marketing for SimplexGrinnell, said “we don’t see that much adoption by the market yet.”

He said fire is still perceived as an area “you don’t want to take a chance with the operation,” which has limited the interest in integration.

In fact, said Tom Giannini, SimplexGrinnell’s director of integrated security systems, “clients want security to be security and they want fire to be fire.”

Giannini said despite conversations about integration, “there isn’t much movement toward integrating fire alarms with building systems.”

What customers have been increasingly seeking, said both Giannini and Haynes, is the ability to put fire panels on a network, so they can do remote monitoring as well as generate e-mail notifications of events.

Although this is taking place primarily among high-end customers, Haynes said “we have customers who want to put small panels as well as large on the network.”

Another form of integration that is taking place, according to Rein Haus, director of fire products for Wheelock, is the combining of fire voice evacuation systems with general paging.

This type of integration, he said, “can result in significant cost savings for building owners and can also improve the performance and reliability of the emergency communications system.”

The cost-savings, Haus explained, come from eliminating the duplication of systems. Further benefits are that combined voice systems are better maintained, readily intelligible and easy to use because operators use them on a daily basis.

So while other forms of advancement related to fire systems are under way, some contend there is a ways to go before multiple systems integration catches on.