For many years, the fire protection industry has cautiously inched forward with product changes, upgrades and advancements. With so much at stake, it has been prudent not to risk moving too rapidly when the consequences are so high. While understandable from a cautionary point of view (one can never be too cautious when it comes to asset and life safety issues), from a technological advancement vantage point, the industry has moved at a relative snail’s’ pace.
Until recently, there was not much need for communication other than signals provided by relays. However, outside the fire industry, things have been moving with much more velocity.
Almost twenty years ago in the automation world, companies were competing to become the defacto standard in manufacturing facilities around the world. Independent, proprietary communication systems had been developed by almost all the automation giants. Personal preference, and a learned comfort level with proprietary software lead to some facilities using only one manufacturer’s product. Many specifiers had spent countless hours learning a specific software and were reluctant to change or investigate other possibilities.
Manufacturers set up, trained and authorized system integrators to assist end users with their installations and system design requirements.
There was one challenge with the proprietary systems. If your facility had more than one system installed, perhaps due to specifiers changing jobs or being provided on stand alone equipment, it was difficult to have equipment within single or multiple locations communicate to each other.
To address the challenge, an association was formed to develop a universal open communication system. The premise was that any manufacturer who was part of the association could develop their products with a common protocol and thereby communicate with each other over a single platform.
In the fire protection industry, devices that have communication capabilities typically will transmit signals and information to other remote devices or to a building management system. The most prevalent platforms have been Modbus and/or Ethernet.
Some manufacturers are working on development of products with communication capabilities, while others have opted to provide a QR (Quick Response) code on a label or nameplate affixed to the product. The QR codes usually contain product specific information that can be used for commissioning reports and to provide data and alarm messaging that can be sent via GPRS or SMS.
Other developments include products with communication capabilities that will continuously transmit real-time system values via cloud based technology as well as embedded WiFi that can communicate to an App on a smart device.
At the 2017 NFPA Conference and Exhibition in Boston, MA items of interest included a QR code on a fire pump; booth to booth wireless communication between an engine manufacturer and a fire pump controller manufacturer – slave to slave on a Modbus platform. There were presentations by a pump manufacturer on their new communication system and by a fire pump controller manufacturer on their new App that communicates over WiFi to the controller; and a sprinkler manufacturer who has developed a system that uses a smoke detector that communicates to a control panel which contains an algorithm designed to send a signal that activates a mechanical trigger on a sprinkler head in the event of a fire. Many others were discussing their intentions to add either QR codes or communication capabilities in the very near future.
So where is all this heading? The 2016 edition of NFPA 20 has a section in Annex C Fire Pump Controllers Connectivity (C.1.6) which reads, “Remote or local access to fire pump controller stored data has been in existence for over 20 years; however, each manufacturer has used proprietary means for accessing (reading or downloading or transferring) this data. There is a perceived need to extend these means to fire pump controllers in general, using some amount of commonality.”
It feels like the fire industry is starting to walk down the path of the factory automation world.
What does the future hold?
Imagine all the possibilities. Devices that talk to each other for life safety and asset protection purposes. Networks that are used to transmit information on component life cycle status, maintenance history and inspection details. Alerts, alarms and notifications that are sent in real time. Seamless integration of communication platforms and protocols. All of these things exist today, but are they being used in a harmonious fashion?
Will there be one standard communication protocol adopted globally? Currently there are numerous protocols and communication platforms that exist, many of which are proprietary to the manufacturer who supplies the equipment or device.
With the advancement of technology, will all items in the pump room incorporate the ability to communicate? Will they be able to communicate on one platform or even to each other? While this remains to be determined, it is more than likely that the true strength of connectivity is to first have the ability to do it, and second to seamlessly integrate those devices.
What about Apps?
While it is clear that use of apps on smart devices has taken a huge upturn, what purpose do they serve for the fire industry? Scanning of barcodes and QR codes is already in place on some manufacturer’s products, while full blown data access to product via an automation style protocol is currently undergoing development. With multiple variations presently available which provide onsite product information, inspection reports and lifecycle data, do they benefit the user if they can’t communicate on a standard platform? The question facing manufacturers will not be, “Do I want an app for my product?”, it will be, “How do I get the user to use mine, and does it communicate to all the equipment in the pump room?”
Do all fire systems receive regularly scheduled tests to ensure the integrity of the system is fully functional in the case of an event? Are there outdated, old units that no longer meet code? Will they operate decades after being installed? As older pieces of equipment are replaced with newer, technologically advanced units, one would think they should slowly disappear, however since the nature of the system is to start only when there is a drop in pressure and during regularly scheduled tests, the life cycle of the components will most likely never be exceeded. Perhaps the insuring companies will play a part in moving the technology forward by demanding communication via remote monitoring, and enforcing regularly scheduled maintenance tests?
Imagine if all controllers, and for that matter, all the equipment in the pump room could be monitored so that a catastrophic failure does not occur. Think of the advantages if each piece of the system could communicate to each other over a single common platform.
Technology and communication is moving ahead at an unprecedented rate. It seems only natural that whatever technology is developed would be adopted over time to significantly enhance the ability to preserve asset and life safety.
Is the fire industry coming of age? It appears that the thinking has long been in place and that it’s only a matter of time before peer to peer connectivity and overall system communication is adopted.
However, in order to achieve this, it may take a “one for all – all for one mentality.” Will manufacturers willingly participate in a universal development project, or will they wait until it is mandated? Perhaps there is a need for a global governing body or consortium to champion such an initiative. It could prove difficult as the development of technology does not always progress at the same pace globally, not to mention the increasing concerns with privacy and security.
There have been many, many advancements in technology and it continues to enhance our daily lives. Younger generations have grown up in an era where technology exists everywhere and don’t think twice about it. There is complete trust that “it will work” or “we’ll just figure it out”. Technology is no longer a “want” or a “need”, it has become an expectation that is embedded in everyday life. The ground rules have changed and the cry of “automate or die” is long in the past. With the dinosaurs of industry moving on, it is assumed that technology will automatically be intrinsic to products everywhere, including the fire industry. The industry may move slowly for many valid reasons; however it is becoming increasingly apparent that the industry is starting to come of age.
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