The fire protection industry is one that is slow to change, a pace driven by the need to meet regulatory requirements. One positive impact of the slow pace is the improved reliability of products which have been tested and retested to ensure they meet the necessary codes and will perform in field conditions. Unfortunately these tests can also elongate the time and high cost for the introduction of new products. Ultimately, this limits the ability to leverage new technology, limits the steps which can be taken to reduce product and installation costs, and limits the ability to improve communication with firefighters and end users.
Even though the pace of change is slow, we have still seen some remarkable improvements in fire protection over the last several years. For example, one of the most innovative newer technologies seen in the fire protection industry is the movement toward wireless fire alarm technology. In 1979, the first supervised wireless fire alarm system was born. Since that time, we have seen wireless systems grow to the point where they are now fully UL 864 list, FM approved, and NFPA 72 compliant. Some wireless fire alarm systems offer a full complement of addressable initiating devices such as smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide detectors. They also have wireless pull stations and remote annunciators. Another recent change is the addition of a wireless 520 Hz sounder which provides a wireless solution for sleeping areas such as in hotels, apartments, condo and assisted living facilities. With the development of wireless fire alarm systems, we are now seeing lower installation costs as one of the prospective key benefits. Particularly in existing structures, wireless fire alarm systems can provide a fully listed system while not having to pull wire behind walls or trenching between buildings. On both smaller and larger installations in hotels, museums, churches, universities, and multi-family housings, this can bring a significant cost reduction to the end user.
A second improvement we are starting to see in fire detection systems is the increased access to real time data and connectivity to other systems. James Pauley, President and CEO of NFPA recently stated “There is an emerging need for real time information on buildings (fire protection system performance data, fire fighting situational awareness data, community risk reduction data, etc.)”1. By leveraging the power of the internet, and creating connectivity between building systems, we can gather tremendous amounts of useful data. For the fire protection space, that information can help with assessing system status, and enable tools that provide immediate notifications, initiation information, and recommended next steps. As I think toward the future, I can see how leveraging a large data set might then be used to develop probabilistic risk assessments around potential system failures. In turn, that information might also be leveraged to direct future development efforts of fire alarm and connected building systems. This type of predictive analysis is commonplace in other industries; applying this type of analysis to fire protection is a next logical step.
With all new developments, we must also look at any potential negative consequences. For example, one of the concerns associated with a connected fire detection system is the overall security of the system and the potential for it to be hacked. Particularly in today’s world, it is critical that the end user understands the risk associated with leveraging the internet for collection and delivery of any information. It is fair to assume that outside parties have an interest to attack systems, and for that reason, end users should rely on reputable companies who clearly understand the risks, and have taken steps to help provide protection against those risks. This will be an ongoing focus and an area of much study in the future.
Even though the fire protection industry is slow to change, we have seen some significant progress over time. The industry now has fully approved, wireless fire alarm systems which help drive down installation costs. We also are seeing implementation of connected systems which offer a tremendous opportunity for increased service efficiencies and long term improvement in design. With time and the integration of new technologies, I can see continued improvement of system performance, improvement in service efficiencies, and ultimately, an increased value to the end users.