Fire industry newcomers position themselves for a share of the prize

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Thursday, December 1, 2005

In an industry filled with consolidation among major players and dominated by a rigid code and standard structure, there are still some willing new entrants into the fire products market.
Both Summit Systems Technologies, based in Vaughan, Ontario, and Viking Electronic Services, in King of Prussia, Pa., have come on the scene recently, offering their take on products and services aimed at the fire alarm system customer.
Rick Fal-bo, national sales manager for Summit, said having Canadian-born Mircom, a fire-focused company, as its parent gives it a headstart in the marketplace. Summit is rebranding Mircom's product line for sale in the United States and is offering a full range of conventional and addressable panels and devices as well as communication products such as video intercoms and phone access systems.
He also credits the company's size in comparison with its four giant competitors with allowing it to better meet changing customer needs. "Our smaller size allows us to be more nimble, more customer focused," said Falbo. "We can shift direction to meet the market."
Customer service, he said, is one of those areas end users are seeking. "They want access to information and live people. They want people who react to their businesses and needs," he said. Ninety percent of problems are solved on the first call, he pointed out, which is why tech support needs to be readily available.
He said reacting to customer input also results in the creation of new products. The company's SST 200 panel was designed based on recommendations from the field concerning the power to run strobes, noted Falbo.
He said Summit is putting quite a bit of resources into building its presence in the United States through a security distribution network and will target small to mid-size end users with its products.
Looking at the fire market from an installer's point of view is the approach taken by Viking Electronic Services, according to president Mitch Black.
"We decided to create a new line from scratch to take in the new technologies," he said. Black said he and the other senior managers have come from the installation service side of the business, "so we tried to address things that gave us headaches as installers."
One such solution, said Black, is to offer plug-and-play networking and to allow the fire systems to be programmed via the Internet. With this method, he said, "you can program in a fraction of the time."
Another area that annoyed Black was the communication--or lack of it--with the monitoring station or at the panel itself. Point names that don't mean anything are of no use, he said.
Instead, he said, end users can name points rationally and have the information be moved to the panel or the monitoring center.
"You can sit at your desk, even before the system is installed, and name things," he said. "So you're not sitting on a mud bucket at a construction site doing on-site programming."
Black said other areas Viking is working on include delivering real-time graphics over the Internet as well as working with 911 centers to deliver that information.
Even with the innovations that Viking hopes to present to customers, Black acknowledged that the fire market "is a difficult proposition for any company to get into. You have to have a full product line to be a player. Every niche and product is covered, so you have to be complete [in your approach] to be able to compete.
"We couldn't afford to build 10 different panels," he explained, "which is why networking was important."
Like Summit, which has its Mircom ties, Viking is hoping its parent company, The Viking Group, and its 80 years in the fire protection industry with its sprinkler and valve business will give it initial credibility.
But with that comes the need to quickly live up to the expectations, said Black.
"There's little room for error because of the strength of the name," he said.