Your Comprehensive Guide to Fire Alarms and Fire Alarm Monitoring
By Andrew Erickson
April 29, 2023
Fire alarms and fire alarm monitoring play a critical role in protecting lives, property, and businesses from the devastating effects of fire.
Today, we'll explore the various aspects of fire alarm systems, discuss the importance of complying with NFPA codes, especially NFPA 72, and delve into initiating devices and the role of first responders.
We'll also discuss the differences between using a third-party central station for monitoring and managing your fire alarms in-house with a proprietary system.
NFPA Codes - and particularly NFPA 72
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a global, non-profit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, and property loss due to fire, electrical, and related hazards. NFPA develops and maintains numerous codes and standards, including NFPA 72 - National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.
This code provides guidelines for the design, installation, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm and emergency communication systems.
Adhering to NFPA 72 is essential to ensure that fire alarm systems function properly and provide the necessary protection. The code covers various aspects, such as fire alarm control panels, initiating devices, notification appliances, and emergency communication systems.
Compliance with NFPA 72 is vital for minimizing the risk of fire incidents and reducing the impact of fire-related emergencies. This is important for both life safety and the financial realities of limiting your associated liability.
Alarms Travel From Initiating Devices to First Responders
Fire alarm initiating devices are the sensors and detectors that identify the presence of fire or smoke, triggering the alarm system. Some common types of initiating devices include smoke detectors, heat detectors, and manual pull stations. These devices play a crucial role in providing early warnings, allowing occupants to evacuate the building and enabling first responders to react quickly.
First responders, such as firefighters and emergency medical services, rely on accurate and timely information from fire alarm systems to make informed decisions when responding to a fire incident. A well-designed and maintained fire alarm system can make a significant difference in the outcome of a fire emergency, saving lives and minimizing property damage.
There is a third element here: the fire alarm control panel (FACP). That's the bridge between initiating devices and the monitoring station that alerts first responders.
Now that I mention monitoring stations, you must understand that you can accomplish that part in one of two distinct ways...
Third-Party Central Station Monitoring vs. In-House Proprietary Systems
When it comes to fire alarm monitoring, there are two primary options:
- Using a third-party central station, or
- Monitoring your fire alarms in-house with a proprietary system.
Third-party central station monitoring involves hiring a specialized company to monitor your fire alarm system 24/7. When an alarm is triggered, the central station receives the signal and dispatches the appropriate emergency services to your location.
This type of monitoring offers several benefits, including expert handling of alarms and potential insurance discounts.
On the other hand, proprietary monitoring systems allow your to monitor your fire alarms in-house with your own team.
This approach often involves installing and maintaining a dedicated fire alarm control panel and staffing trained personnel to monitor and respond to alarms. In-house monitoring can offer more control over the system, quicker response times, and potential cost savings. However, it does require an investment in infrastructure and personnel. That makes it best suited for college campuses, military bases, and city governments.
Choosing between third-party central station monitoring and in-house proprietary systems ultimately depends on factors such as budget, organizational structure, and risk tolerance.
Each option has its pros and cons. The final decision should be made based on a thorough assessment of the specific needs and resources of your business.
Connectivity Options for Fire Alarm Systems: Dialers, Network, Internet, and Private Mesh Radio Solutions
One key aspect of a fire alarm system's effectiveness is its connectivity, which ensures that alarms are quickly and reliably transmitted to monitoring centers and emergency services.
Let's now look at the multiple methods available for fire alarm system connectivity, including traditional dialers, network and internet, and private mesh radio solutions. I'll walk you through the advantages and disadvantages of each option, helping you make an informed decision when selecting a fire alarm system for your building or facility.
Traditional dialers, with many classified digital alarm communicator transmitters (DACTs) sending trouble codes, had been the standard method of fire alarm system connectivity for decades. This largely remains true.
These dialers use telephone lines to transmit alarm signals to a central monitoring station. When an alarm is triggered, the dialer dials a predetermined phone number and sends a specific signal to the monitoring center, which then dispatches the appropriate emergency services.
Advantages of traditional dialers:
- Reliability: Dialers have a proven track record of reliability, as they have been used for fire alarm system connectivity for decades.
- Compatibility: Dialers are compatible with most existing fire alarm systems, making them an easy choice for facilities with older equipment.
Disadvantages of traditional dialers:
- Slow transmission: Dialers can be relatively slow in transmitting alarm signals compared to newer technologies, which may result in longer response times.
- Dependency on phone lines: Dialers rely on functional telephone lines, which can be vulnerable to damage or outages, potentially compromising the alarm system's connectivity. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to get a traditional POTS phone line from your local telecom provider.
Network and Internet Connectivity
Network and internet connectivity options have gained popularity in recent years as an alternative to traditional dialers. These options use the building's existing internet connection (or local LAN in a larger facility) to transmit alarm signals to the monitoring center.
Network and internet connectivity can be achieved through several methods, such as Ethernet connections, Wi-Fi, or directly to commercial cellular networks.
Advantages of network and internet connectivity include:
- Faster transmission: Network and internet connectivity typically offer faster alarm signal transmission compared to traditional dialers, which can result in quicker response times.
- Remote access and control: Fire alarm systems with network and internet connectivity often provide remote access and control capabilities, allowing you to monitor and manage the system from any location.
Disadvantages of network and internet connectivity include:
- Dependency on internet connection: Network and internet connectivity rely on a stable and functioning internet connection, which can be vulnerable to outages or disruptions. It is this concern that has kept dialers in place for the last two decades as the internet became ubiquitous.
- Security concerns: Internet-connected fire alarm systems are inherently more susceptible to external cyberattacks, potentially compromising the system's integrity and effectiveness.
Private Mesh Radio
Private mesh radio is another option for fire alarm system connectivity, offering a robust and reliable solution that does not rely on phone lines or the internet.
Mesh radio systems use a network of radio transmitters and receivers to transmit alarm signals between devices and the monitoring center.
Advantages of private mesh radio include:
- Resilience: Mesh radio networks are designed to be self-healing and can automatically reroute signals if a communication path is disrupted, ensuring reliable connectivity.
- Speed: Private mesh radio systems often provide faster alarm signal transmission compared to traditional dialers.
- No dependency on external cellular network: Your system will continue to function even when your local wireless provider has an outage. This is particularly important during a major emergency situation.
What are You Trying to Accomplish with Your Fire Alarm System and Monitoring?
The needs of your facility will dictate the type of fire alarm system and monitoring solution you need.
If a reliable connection to emergency services is critical, traditional dialers may be the best choice.
If you want faster response times or access to remote control capabilities, then network and internet connectivity should be considered.
For maximum reliability without dependency on external networks, private mesh radio systems are the most robust option. No matter what solution you choose, ensure that it meets all relevant codes and regulations for your jurisdiction.
Ultimately, when selecting a fire alarm system and monitoring option, there is no one-size-fits-all solution - only the right fit for your particular application. Make sure to evaluate all available options based on their performance characteristics before making a decision.
Call Digitize Now to Speak with an Engineer Today
If you need help choosing the best fire alarm system and monitoring option for your facility, contact Digitize today.
Our experienced engineers can provide advice on what solutions to consider based on your needs and can help you evaluate them against relevant codes and regulations.
Call 1-800-523-7232 or email email@example.com
Andrew Erickson is an Application Engineer at DPS Telecom, a manufacturer of semi-custom remote alarm monitoring systems based in Fresno, California. Andrew brings more than 16 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and...Read More