The next wave in fire? Video smoke and flame detection

As cameras become more commonplace, algorithms will enhance and replace your old smoke detectors
Saturday, April 1, 2006

Video smoke and flame detection uses computer analysis in conjunction with images from a CCTV system to detect smoke and flame patterns and movement. Called Video Image Smoke Detection, this technology is likely to be more widely used in the near future.
The upcoming 2007 edition of NFPA 72 will likely address general requirements for both video image flame and smoke detection, according to Lee Richardson, senior electrical engineer and staff liaison for NFPA 72 at the National Fire Protection Association.
Richardson said the sections addressing both hardware and software listed for video image smoke and flame detection will be general because the technology is still being developed. The onus, he said, will fall to the listing organizations, such as Underwriters Laboratories and Factory Mutual, to make sure devices comply with and are designed according to specific chapters and sections of the code.
Because the technology relies on proprietary computer programs and algorithms, Richardson said it's difficult to come up with "prescriptive requirements."
"We wanted to make sure [these systems] were listed as smoke detectors to make sure they do what they are supposed to do," he explained.
The NFPA 72 "recognized that this is an up-and-coming thing. We didn't want to stifle it, but wanted to recognize and encourage it."
Richardson said VISD is "sort of a niche type of thing," but the committee was excited to be able to include it.
Kenneth L. Gentile, PE, with Rolf, Jensen & Associates, a global fire and security consulting firm, said VISD has roots in the electric power generation business in the United Kingdom and U.S. military research.
David Lloyd, VISD sales and engineering manager for Fire Sentry Corp., Brea, Calif., said VSID is more widely used and accepted in Europe because CCTV systems are more prevalent there.
However, since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has allowed more video camera usage, and even more so following the subway train and bus bombings in London, where cameras were used to identify and track down the bombers.
Those events, said Lloyd, "have helped acceptance of cameras here and it will only improve in the years to come. As it does, more people will have video surveillance inside and outside of places of work."
Then, he added, it's just a matter of adding another system to get a high-speed reaction to smoke in the CCTV image, thus providing notification of fire in its earliest stages.
Lloyd said the current spot and beam detectors used to sense smoke require smoke to build up and rise to the ceiling before an alarm is triggered. Unfortunately, he said, not all smoke reacts in such a manner during a fire.
A camera in the corner of a room can see almost the complete volume of the space, said Lloyd. Depending on how sensitive a user wants the system to be, and how large a space is being monitored, two or more cameras are needed, he said.
VISD has typically been used in large, open enclosures, said Gentile. Lloyd said video smoke detection systems are in place on off-shore oil rigs, in tunnels, aircraft hangars, warehouses and even Britain's House of Parliament.
Maryland-based axonX is another player in the VISD market. It targets commercial applications, small business and some high-end residential, said Bob Dannenfelser, manager of global product services.
In late 2005 axonX secured $2 million from Johnson Controls to develop the necessary hardware and software (see February's "AxonX gets on the A-list"). AxonX's system uses algorithms to detect smoke and fire and applies them to live video images through the use of surveillance cameras.
"We are a volume detector," explained Dannenfelser, with the system viewing the entire volume of a space to spot smoke, flames or even reflected flames.
He said the the U.S. fire and life safety community has focused on meeting codes and less on reducing risks to enterprises because of fire damage or business disruption.
AD Holdings, which like Fire Sentry uses the D-Tec VISD technology, is rolling out Smoke Vu for use at commercial enterprises within the United States. John Dolan, vice president of business development, said VISD's uniqueness "is the intelligence to detect smoke patterns and movement. By the time there is a temperature rise or smoke has reached the ceiling in some areas, you're in a bad way."
Dolan said Smoke Vu has applications for power and chemical plants in the United States as it has in the United Kingdom, but is also being considered for use in the cargo holds of airplanes.
He said the system can use any standard CCTV camera and can be monitored remotely. However, both Gentile and Richardson said the cameras need to be listed and code specifications may call for specific cameras.
Lloyd said Fire Sentry, which already has installations within the United States at an oil facility, theme park and power stations, has five or six cameras that are FM listed. If a company has another camera system in place and the cameras meet the required specifications, he said, "then all we do is take the specifications for the camera and get FM approval for its use with VSD," explained Lloyd.
He said the way the FM approval for the system is written, certain NFPA codes must be adhered to, but it comes down to the AHJ as to whether the installation can take place.
Lloyd said Fire Sentry is in the process of getting UL approval. "Getting UL approval will open the market up," he said. "UL is certainly the accepted standard around the world. UL approval allows a system designer to specify the use of video smoke detection without further approval from the AHJ."
The SigniFire system from axonX is getting its FM approval, said Dannenfelser, but the company will seek a UL listing for its newest twist on VISD, which is an IP addressable camera with the smoke detection intelligence inside.
"We're looking at a prototype camera in six to eight weeks," said Dannenfelser in early March. This type of smart camera development, he said, could open the market beyond the commercial applications that VISD is applied to now.
He said it is "price overkill" for many smaller businesses or homes to have a DVR and six to eight cameras. "But the smart camera will cover fire, smoke and intrusion."
He said for high-priced homes with valuables, such as irreplaceable artwork or furniture, a $1,000 camera isn't a huge investment.
Dannenfelser said while companies are working on getting FM and/or UL listings, the biggest challenge is the lack of knowledge within the community that such fire and smoke detection systems exist. Companies need to be educated on the benefits, he said, and the proactive stance it gives them toward protecting the value of their company and assets.