Interfaces for fire systems address concerns of firefighters worldwide

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Tuesday, July 1, 2003

An often-expressed concern of firefighters around the world is their unfamiliarity with the information made available to them with fire detection panels as they enter a building responding to a fire.

Now through an international cooperative effort, a major step has been made creating an operator interface screen for fire detection systems.

The most critical information fire-fighters need to know as they rush to respond to an alarm includes: Where is the fire? Where are we in relation to it? How do we get from here to there? What will we find when we get there?

Firefighters and fire marshals are also interested in learning if the alarm was sent by a smoke detector, a heat detector, a waterflow detector or a manual station, because that helps define the type of event they’re going to encounter. And, of course, they would like to know the types of hazards that are present in the area, and the types of people in that location who may need help in getting out.

In general, the fire-alarm industry has done a good job of building intelligent detectors that respond quickly. But it has not done as good a job in terms of presenting information about the building and about the fire events to the firefighters responding in an emergency.

The status quo

Most fire systems today offer a short text message that describes the location of the alarm. With only 30 or 40 characters, it’s usually abbreviated to the point where it might as well be coded. If the panel serves a large building, it can be virtually impossible to pinpoint the alarm location. In many cases, firefighters say they hate to waste time studying the uninformative screen message.

The idea of providing generous fire- and building-related information is not new. PC-based graphic annunciators and command centers offer pictures and graphic maps of the building as well as virtually unlimited information.

But a strange computer is not usually friendly to a firefighter in a hurry. And the cost of such an installation often puts it out of reach of competitive bidding.

Bigger, better information

A new system with a display size allowing easier viewing and a touch screen permitting more intuitive operation brings understandable information into the average system without the cost of a PC. The new system offers considerably more of the information that fire officials say they need.

This improved operator interface screen communicates in easy-to-read, large-text characters, displays up to five events simultaneously and uses standard hazmat icons for safety. It employs shading to highlight critical information and two sizes of type for emphasis, with further information accessed via a lighted “More Info” button. Simple graphic maps are incorporated for clarity.

The standard NFPA fire safety symbols, as delineated in NFPA 170 and NFPA 704, provide information about the type of fire service equipment available in the alarm area.

Screens gives general details of the type of alarm - smoke, manual, heat, waterflow, etc. - and a customized message about the location of the alarm event and the time.

For further information, the responder pushes the “More Info” button and is offered specifics of the alarm location. More than 200 characters worth of information can be provided.

A screen on “area fire equipment,” shows the equipment that’s available in that area to help fight the fire.

Another screen offers intelligence on hazards in the area, according to the recommendations of NFPA 704. The diamond symbol identifies materials in the area by hazard rating in categories.

This screen also notes particular problems that may arise with occupant evacuation, such as handicapped personnel, location of the hazardous materials by type, location of the exit, and so on.

Beyond code requirements

The provisions provided by these screens go far beyond the requirements of NFPA 72. Neither NFPA, FM nor UL specify any specific annunciation features for reporting in addressable systems. The new panels are designed to save lives, health and property by giving fire responders and end users more information to make it easier for them to interact with the system and most importantly, locate alarms in the building.

Designing the interface

Clearly, response to a fire alarm is a stressful situation, underlining the importance of making the interface as easy to use as possible. To achieve this, fire system designers worked with industrial design staff experienced in cognitive research and human factors. The researchers provided user interaction studies based on mockups of proposed screen designs, and the designs were modified based on the reactions of system users.

Later in the design process, screen details were reviewed with fire service personnel. They liked the concept and helped fine-tune design and operation of the interface.

Accommodating levels

Besides the first responders, the operator interface is designed to accommodate other levels of users. For building operators, everything was made easy and step-by-step, as close as possible to intuitive.

Building maintenance workers are not concerned with the details or physical architecture of systems. So rather than wasting panel space with loop number and device address, more room was allowed for detailing the actual location in the building. The fire panel software displays a geographic view: the way people look at the building, rather than the way the fire alarm architecture is set up.

Instead of requiring the specific device address, maintenance personnel can navigate and control any detector or group of detectors by working their way geographically to the units they need without a printout or set of plans.

Further advantages

The system stresses ease of install-ability and service, reducing overall installation cost to the user and installer, and total life-cycle cost. It features color-coded hardware layout and quick-disconnect pull-offs. Intelligent device wiring is polarity-insensitive, and existing lines can be used, helping to reduce installation costs and minimize the disruption of business associated with installing new conduit and wire in existing buildings.

In the end we get a high level of system intelligibility to ensure all live voice pages and spoken messages can be clearly heard and understood by building occupants.

Brian O’Mahoney is director-product marketing, fire systems for Siemens Fire Safety, Florham Park, N.J. He can be reached at 800-222-0108.