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Fire Detection – the Past, Present and Future

Apollo was founded in 1980 and, over the past 35 years, has grown into one of the leading international manufacturers of quality and reliable fire detection solutions, with devices installed in places such as The Statue of Liberty in New York, The Royal Albert Hall in London and The Kremlin in Moscow to name just a few.

Building upon our company’s strong British heritage and brand strength, we have rapidly expanded our export business and now trade in more than 100 countries worldwide, with plans for further international expansion well underway.

The past
With over three decades in the industry, we’ve clearly seen a lot of changes and been proud to be at the forefront of introducing many of these new products to market, most notably addressable detectors and intelligent detector heads.

It was the 1980s and 1990s which brought probably the biggest changes to fire detectors, with the industry moving in tandem with technical advances towards addressable products, opening up a new world of opportunities to networked fire detection solutions. In 1986, Apollo Fire Detectors introduced a range of analogue addressable detectors called Series 90 with the principles employed used to subsequently develop the XP95 range, which remains one of our most popular products today. Although Series 90 and XP95 are both analogue addressable devices, they use digital protocol for panel/device communication and mark the beginning of a fire detection design age which maximised the use of advances in technology to allow detectors to communicate effectively with control panels and identify the exact location of an activation.

In the late 1990s, these moves into the world of new technology took another significant step with the introduction of intelligent fire detectors, such as our Discovery range, which essentially employed the use of intelligent sensors in detector heads to make decisions and allowed systems to be fully tailored towards their application. For example, different levels of sensitivity for a building can be provided at different times of day such as a fire detection system switching combined smoke/heat multisensors in an entertainment venue to heat detection only when smoke machines are being used. Intelligent detectors can also analyse the signals from their smoke or heat sensors and decide whether the source is likely to be smoke from a real fire or a false reason, such as cooking fumes. The 1990s also saw the introduction of other key features, such as drift compensation – a feature that adjusts for environmental conditions such as dust to ensure a detector is not adversely affected.

These industry moves signalled a huge milestone in the reliability of detectors and set the scene for the future of the industry, with this technology still built upon today.

Current movements
The biggest immediate trend in the industry is the move towards better detection, and better differentiation. Fire detectors are getting more and more reliable, but are increasingly being designed to minimise the risk of false alarms.

These false alarms are currently the biggest challenge to the industry, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the near future we see a tightening of standards and even a move toward legislating against fire detectors causing false alarms.

As well as impacting on businesses and the public, false alarms are having a seriously detrimental impact on how the fire service operates on the front line, as Adair Lewis, Technical Manager at the Fire Protection Association (FPA), explains:

“One of the biggest issues in fire protection at the moment is false alarms. In 2013, the emergency services responded to over 400,000 cases of false alarms. Not only is this clearly a waste of resources which diverts help from potential incidents of real need, but it also influences the fire policies of different fire brigades throughout the country. An example of this can be seen in the deployment of Fire Advisors on motorbikes in areas where brigades have experienced high numbers of false alarms. Whereas this clearly cuts down on the resources needed to attend an incident, and does allow for the assessment of a situation, the downside is undoubtedly that these advisors have limited capabilities when it comes to being able to tackle a genuine fire situation.

“What we’re welcoming at the FPA is the development by manufacturers of more multi-sensor fire, smoke and heat detectors which can give a wider picture of a potential situation and therefore reduce false alarms and unnecessary callouts. Also, fire safety planners need to be working with manufacturers to ensure that they are recommending detectors to their clients which are fit for purpose. Each installation can be subject to different environmental conditions; for example, there may be a factory environment where excessive heat and steam is produced, and a manufacturer is a crucial point of reference for clarification of the best type of detector to use.”

Crucial to the reduction of false alarms is the development of more advanced optical detectors which can differentiate between steam and smoke. As an example, false alarms are often experienced in small hotel rooms where steam from hot showers can be interpreted by detectors as being smoke. Another issue is dust. Dust is the enemy of the fire detector as it can not only cause build up around the detection sensors, but small particles, such as those found in talcum powder, can also be wrongly identified as smoke.

Fire-Detection-the-Past-Present-and-Future

Another current trend we’re experiencing comes from the marketplace itself. With many buildings becoming increasingly design-focused, there’s a definite need emerging for detectors which are visually less intrusive in rooms and offer an aesthetically pleasing fire detection solution. We’re currently developing new detectors which are smaller, sleeker and lower in profile, and this is definitely going to be key going forward for the industry – much in the same way that mobile phones have become more attractive and more slimline.

And, as mobile phones have increased in functionality in line with new technology, fire detection can only go the same way. In the 1980s with the advent of the first mobile phone, no one could have expected that instead of just calls and text messages, people would be able to check emails, surf the internet, watch films and TV and have live conversations across the world. In much the same way, fire detection is already starting to become more multi-functional. It’s not unusual that fire detection connectivity is multi-purpose in domestic settings, with many devices integrating with security and building maintenance, but we’re predicting a massive shift in this becoming more commonplace in the commercial world with sensor heads crucial to this ongoing development.

A key factor to this will be wireless and gateway connectivity, with sensors intelligently communicating with other networks, e.g. a central hub or building management system. By establishing a maintenance hub from the fire detection network, sensors in fire detectors will be able to collect and process data. We’re already seeing heat detectors used as room thermostats, but the potential exists for this to go even further. In much the same way that lighting sensors react to a person’s presence in a room, and heating systems can adjust to the number of people in a building, fire detectors of the future should be able to detect not only the presence of heat, smoke and CO2, but also intelligently balance this against those present on the room, and evaluate the risks accordingly.

Going a little further into the future, there’s no doubt in my mind that entirely new fire detection techniques will be developed. Essentially, fire detection over the past 40 years hasn’t changed in its approach – a system will see smoke, smell smoke or detect heat. Whereas this undoubtedly is an extremely solid method, the potential for a ground-breaking innovation that will turn the industry on its head certainly exists.

 

Setting the standard
There haven’t really been any momentous industry standards since the introduction of British Standards in the 1950s, and this needs to change. By introducing new tests which will keep up with technological advances a lot faster, those responsible for determining industry standards can only benefit fire detection manufacturers and the marketplace.

Another important consideration is the harmonisation of standards. It used to be that each country’s standards were different, causing confusion and a lack of fluidity in the marketplace. Nowadays, the vast majority of European standards are practically aligned, with standards in areas which used to be miles apart, such as the USA, fast catching up. Once there is full alignment of standards, fire detection worldwide will be clearer, more reliable and a fully open playing field. Looking even further into the future, I foresee worldwide standards becoming commonplace.

Conclusion
Whilst it’s impossible to comment on what the next 35 years will bring for Apollo and the fire detection industry as a whole, it’s clear that the potential for change is huge, especially considering the opportunities that changes in technology present. The vast advances in areas such as wireless connectivity and communications will no doubt offer significant prospects for not only fire detection, but other networked systems such as security and maintenance.

It’s important to remember though that sometimes, rather than focusing on “all singing and all dancing” innovations, the best solution is to concentrate on improving the technology that currently works, and make it work even better, rather than reinventing the wheel. Our continued focus is the emphasis on improving performance above all else, especially when it comes to both better detection and better differentiation, e.g. improving our optical scatter device technology so that devices not only detect the presence of smoke, but also what type of smoke this is. We’re also keen to incorporate increased digital signal processing, increased multi-scatter detection angles and more complex algorithms to process the signals in our intelligent sensor heads, to name just a couple of current priorities.

By constantly evaluating and developing products which not only build upon tried and tested techniques, but also tackle major issues in the marketplace, such as false alarms, fire detection manufacturers can truly achieve success in developing safety critical products which are capable of protecting human life above all else – and that is a priority which will never change for the industry.”

For further information, go to www.apollo-fire.co.uk

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Chris Moore is Technical Director at Apollo. Heads up a 40-strong team of Electronic Software Designers, Mechanical Design Engineers, Researchers and PhD Engineers who are responsible for designing the company’s new fire detection devices.

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