Strengthening Necessary Skills for Municipal Fire Alarm Systems

By Andrew Erickson

July 1, 2024

A recent conversation during a site visit between Digitize engineers, Andrew and Jim, and a client revealed an important problem - and some solutions. Their conversation touched on the current state of municipal fire alarm systems and the challenges faced by cities in maintaining these essential services.

Much of the conversation revolved around the talent shortage ("skills gap") in older fire alarm technologies that are still used today. New graduates simply don't arrive with those skills.

Let's review the conversation to learn about training and tools that can alleviate this skills gap within your organization.

The Talent Shortage in Municipal Fire Alarm Systems

The client noted early in the interaction that many municipalities are facing a new skills gap:

"Talent is disappearing from towns."

This comment highlights a significant problem that municipalities are encountering as experienced technicians and fire chiefs retire. This leaves a gap in the expertise needed to maintain and operate complex fire alarm systems.

The challenge is especially bad in smaller towns. Within these areas, budget constraints often limit the ability to hire and train new personnel.

The maintenance of fire alarm systems requires specialized knowledge that is becoming increasingly rare. This is especially true for the 100-mil (100mA) circuits commonly used in municipal systems. This shortage of talent affects the maintenance of existing systems. It also poses a risk to the implementation of new technologies.

System 3505 Prism LNX
Telegraph and fire alarm monitoring gives you abilities that modern technology can't.

Your Monitoring System Can Help New Staff React Properly

As one example of an older concept that must be handled with older systems, Jim emphasized the importance of grounding in fire alarm systems. He mentioned that improper grounding can lead to communication failures:

"Grounding to plumbing for ground return will cause a lot of problems."

Grounding issues can cause significant disruptions. These disruptions can lead to delayed responses to fire incidents. Ensuring that systems are correctly grounded and regularly inspected can prevent these failures.

Products like the System 3505 Prism LX from Digitize can help. These solutions include supervised communication links and built-in diagnostics to alert users of any grounding issues or other faults in the system. Even newer staff who don't fully understand the electrical concepts involved can still react to a clearly worded alarm message.

Transitioning Gradually from 100 Mil Systems to Modern Tech

The discussion also touched on the trend of cities moving away from 100-mil systems. Jim shared an anecdote from a Digitize user that explains why many cities prefer to stick with telegraph:

"You can say 100mil is old tech, but sometimes I'll get the call from the central station once I'm already in my truck on the way to the fire."

This highlights the reliability and high speed of these systems despite their age. However, with old fire chiefs nearing retirement, cities are increasing forced (they think!) to eliminate the expense and complexity of maintaining 100-mil systems.

Digitize offers modern solutions that can seamlessly integrate with existing infrastructure. You can protect your existing investment and fast response times - while providing a pathway for future upgrades.

The Prism LX system, for example, supports a variety of communication methods, including radio polling and Ethernet. This makes it a versatile choice for municipalities looking to modernize their fire alarm monitoring without losing reliability.

Extra Bonus: Reduce Your Liability Insurance Premiums

Our client pointed out the benefits of having a direct fire alarm connection in terms of insurance:

"If you ask your municipal liability insurance company, they'll give you a discount for having a direct fire alarm connection. It can pay for itself instantly, depending on the building."

This incentive highlights the dual benefits of upgrading to modern fire alarm systems: improved life and fire safety, as well as potential cost savings. Digitize’s products comply with NFPA 72 standards, ensuring that they meet the stringent requirements for fire alarm systems.

The Prism LX system has comprehensive monitoring and reporting capabilities. It is with these capabilities that the device provides peace of mind to both municipalities and their insurance providers by enhancing overall safety and compliance.

Send Alarms to Regional Dispatch Centers

As cities evolve, so do their fire alarm systems. The client highlighted this shift:

"We do a lot of work getting signals to regional dispatch centers."

This reflects the growing trend of integrating fire alarm systems with centralized dispatch centers to improve response times and coordination. Reputable fire alarm systems like the Prism LX are designed to facilitate this integration seamlessly.

The Prism LX system supports multiple communication protocols. This allows it to interface with various dispatch and monitoring systems effortlessly. This capability ensures that municipalities can upgrade their systems without the need for extensive overhauls. Preventing overhauls saves time and resources while enhancing operational efficiency.

Receiving Alarms from AES

Jim emphasized the reliability of direct-wire systems in critical infrastructure:

"We interface as a receiver with the AES receivers. Why would you want AES received by Digitize?"

The client responded highlighting their need for efficiency, which had more to do with central alarm collection than the individual remote devices:

"Central stations can sometimes take 'forever' to report (a few minutes). Prism gives you a migration path to gradually evolve your alarm system."

Direct-wire systems offer unmatched reliability, especially in environments where wireless signals might be compromised. The System 3505 Prism LX supports direct-wire inputs. This makes it a well-rounded solution for critical infrastructure.

With its capability to monitor up to 2048 direct-wire inputs, the Prism LX ensures that even the most complex alarm networks are efficiently managed and monitored.

RPI-32 provides the conversion of an analog alarm signal into the proper format to be processed by the System 3505 Prism LX

Lessons Learned from Historical Fire Responses

The conversation also touched on historical incidents that underline the importance of reliable fire alarm systems. Jim recounted an event from the 1989 San Francisco earthquake:

"They had 80 circuits. Firemen would tap it out & pull it & trucks would know right where to go."

This anecdote serves as a powerful reminder of how reliable communication can make a critical difference in emergency response. Systems like the Prism LX are built with these lessons in mind, offering features such as supervised communication links and comprehensive data logging.

These features ensure that in the event of a disaster, first responders have accurate and timely information to make informed decisions quickly.

Future-Proofing with Scalable Solutions

Looking towards the future, scalability and flexibility are key considerations for municipal fire alarm systems. As our client mentioned:

"We want cities to keep 100mil, because once it's gone it's not coming back."

This sentiment underscores the need for solutions that not only address current needs but also offer scalability for future expansions.

The Prism LX system is designed with scalability in mind. It allows municipalities to start with a basic setup and gradually expand as needed, adding more zones and capabilities without significant additional costs. This flexibility makes it an ideal choice for cities looking to future-proof their fire alarm monitoring systems.

Ensuring Continuous Improvement and Support

Lastly, the discussion highlighted the importance of ongoing support and maintenance for fire alarm systems. One of the engineers shared:

"The best thing we can do is maintain Digitize gear that is installed in so many municipalities."

This reflects the need for reliable support to ensure that fire alarm systems continue to operate effectively over their lifespan. Digitize offers comprehensive support and maintenance services for its products.

This guarantees that municipalities can rely on their systems for years to come. Regular updates, technical support, and training programs are part of Digitize’s commitment to customer satisfaction and system reliability.

Adapting Your System and Educating Your Staff

The insights shared by Andrew and Jim during our conversation underscore the challenges and opportunities in the realm of municipal fire alarm systems.

As municipalities face a shortage of skilled technicians and the need to upgrade aging infrastructure, solutions like the System 3505 Prism LX from Digitize offer a reliable and future-proof option.

Ensuring the fire and life safety, as well as the reliability, of your fire alarm systems has never been more critical. For more information on how Digitize can help your municipality upgrade its fire alarm systems, visit our product pages or contact us directly.

We offer free tech support and training to both past clients as well as new potential clients. No matter our history together, we look forward to working with you to enhance your systems.

Call 1-800-693-0351 or email for help getting started.

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson

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 17 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and...Read More