Q&A: Digitize Engineers Jim & John Discuss Fire-Alarm Monitoring

By Andrew Erickson

July 2, 2022

I'm new to the Digitize team, so I've been rapidly learning the functions and strengths of the many different Digitize devices.

I've spent a lot of time reviewing website product descriptions and brochures, but the best research technique is to talk to the seasoned experts.

In my previous work, I've been at agile companies with highly experienced teams. Digitize matches this description exactly.

I recently sat down with John Ermatinger and Jim Sutton, long-time engineers at Digitize. They gave me a solid introduction to Digitize equipment. I learned the basic applications, advanced best practices, and some interesting stories from the company's long history:

Q: What hardware/software does Digitize provide? Who would buy it, and why would they buy it?

Jim Sutton, Design Engineer

Jim Sutton, Digitize Design Engineer: Digitize does remote monitoring for life-safety purposes. If there's a fire in a building, we're monitoring one of their pre-existing fire panels and passing that data back to a central dispatching location so that it can be used to dispatch fire equipment or other emergency equipment.

You can detect both "alarms" and "troubles" (technology failures, ex. Water pressure on sprinkler system if someone turned off the pressure, and now it's not energized so it can't be used). Could be trouble alarms, smoke detectors, heat detectors. Could be another alarm that knows when water is flowing, because you'd want to know that.

Our equipment is going to be tied to an existing fire panel that's actually going to be monitoring those sprinklers and fire pull-hooks and heat detectors and smoke detectors. We're going to take information from that panel via our MuxPad and transmit it back to the System 3505 Prism LX at the head end.

Our niche is being able to take a campus or Air Force base or some other government facility with multiple buildings and be able to tie all of their pre-existing fire panels so that they can remote signal back to their fire department. This can be accomplished without having to remove and replace all of the fire panels.

A lot of times, a client will have communicators from another manufacturer, and we have added the other manufacturer's format to the Prism. So, the Prism can talk not only to our Digitize equipment, but quite a few pieces of other manufacturer's equipment that they might wish to retire (but not get rid of the technology that's out in the field).

John Ermatinger, Sales Engineer

John Ermatinger, Digitize Sales Engineer: With our systems, we cover a wide range of systems that our clients would use. We're a proprietary alarm monitoring system. The end users usually monitor their own equipment, and then they, in turn, call dispatchers.

At Digitize, we can mix-and-match many different kinds of inputs and systems based on client needs. We also cover a wide range of systems, from the old telegraph coded systems that are still in operation. It's a large number. There are many in New England, and military bases around the world.

We can use that to bring data back to clients at their centralized locations. Most clients have their own central-station monitoring (a central monitoring system), where they can collect alarms from their fire panels. We can do that, and more, because we're compatible with other devices out in the field.

Q: How do far-end devices send data back to the central alarm monitoring system?

Jim: The Prism LX is at the head end. It's the most recent version of the System 3505, our central alarm monitoring system. It has a color touchscreen display. It completely replaces the original model, so the System 3505 is only now available as the new Prism LX model. (Prior to that, we started with the DPM 2000, then the 3000, then 3500, then the 3505 model number).

"Prism" represents the color display, and "LX" represents Linux.

Prism LX for fire alarm monitoring
The Prism LX collects information from many different fire alarm control panels (FACP) via many different transports - then aggregates them on a single, cohesive display.

The Prism is capable of bringing in information from many different locations.

Starting from the far end, the remote switches at the building are going to trigger a fire panel that already exists in the building.

That fire panel is going to signal our MuxPad, either via relay contact or an RS232 connection. The MuxPad is then connected back to the Prism LX via multiple different methods, which could be:

  • RS485
  • copper wire
  • single-mode fiber
  • multi-mode fiber
  • two-way radio communications
  • mesh radio

The Prism LX will connect information from any of these MuxPads, which are all supervised. The links are supervised (via polling architecture) to ensure that they're in-place and working.

The DDI-11 is a digital dialer input. You tie it to a phone line. Then, there are communicators that go into a building and, whenever an alarm takes place in the building, the communicator would dial up the DDI-11, transmit its data over, and the Prism LX would collect it.

RAD-16LS wall-mount box for fire alarms
RAD-16LS designed and manufactured by Digitize

We also made panels called the RAD-8LS, RAD-16LS, RAB, 32/64LS. The number indicates how many dry-contact inputs it has. You could put this panel inside the building to monitor the internal fire panel. You could then code out on that same radio system. In addition to having cottage shells on the pole, you could also pick up buildings throughout the community.

Lastly, our DESPLEX system is used to be compatible with an encrypted government standard that some military bases use. It's not currently used for new installations, but many replacement parts are ordered each year for existing systems.

John: If a campus needs a fire-alarm system, it might be from a number of brands, including FCI panels and Notifier panels and other manufacturers.

We have interfaces for many of them, so our clients don't have to buy multiple Fire Alarm Control Panel (FACP) head-ends. They can just tie it all into one box, the Digitize System 3505 Prism LX.

As Jim mentioned, different clients use differing transport methods for various technological and policy reasons. For example, many military bases have been very reluctant to use IP for security reasons.

A client like that might use serial over copper wires, but Verizon and other phone providers have increasingly been ending service for those wires.

Because of the many different technology eras still in use today, we are backwards-compatible to 99% of our old equipment. Our clients don't need to spend millions of dollars replacing an entire system. They also don't have to initiate a "fire watch", which is something of a dirty "four-letter word" that eats into your budget by gobbling up staff time literally watching for fires.

To keep things organized, you can categorize various alarms as "fire", "supervisory", "burglary", etc. The Prism LX annunciates or displays either the event information you've defined or other embedded information from the far-end device.

Q: How would new and existing clients generally purchase from Digitize in 2022? What sort of projects are they tackling?

Jim: Lately, we've been working on college campuses, and also in US Navy bases. A lot of times, we'll get inquiries about our entire product line, then engineers construct an RFP/RFQ for products like ours. It will then go out to bid. Much of our work these days is going that way.

The Prism LX is usually the Digitize product that you'll install first in your head end. If you work in fire dispatch, it's common to then start installing other Digitize equipment around your town to expand your detection coverage.

Over time, you might start adding multiplex panels ("DGMs" in 8-64 capacity), which are something like stripped-down Remote Terminal Units (RTUs). You can pick up alarms from one building at a time or from a cluster of buildings.

Once you have your Prism LX, you can decide whether you'll add multiplexers to bring in fire panels. For example, you'll decide whether you'll use the Q Mux to go out to very remote areas and bring in remote sensors with just a pair of wires. That can be used to carry sensor data over miles.

Direct-wire inputs tend to be older technology, of course, while the obvious modern transport methods also exist now.

John: During an upgrade, our clients might add something a little more modern like fiber or Ethernet.

60-70% of our upgrade projects have been 20-year, 30-year, or even 40-year clients of Digitize. They will often upgrade to a new Digitize system.

Thanks to our long history and high reliability, we get a lot of business through word-of-mouth.

If the Prism LX is in a place that isn't busy, they might just sit next to it.

Lately, especially with the younger generation of client staff, more and more people want to get away from direct interaction with "the black box" (the Prism LX hardware) and onto a modern workstation.

Our CGRMS software is a high-end automation system that runs on modern mouse-and-keyboard Windows workstations. You can export data as CSV to get history that goes beyond the thermal-tape rolls. (laughs)

Q: Speaking of that long Digitize history since 1977, what can you tell me about telegraph and some of the other early technologies that are still being used today?

Jim: The telegraph is where our founder, Abe Brecher, started at the beginning. He made an electronic method of counting the telegraph pulses that came from fire-alarm boxes.

Fire alarm boxes are little cottage-shell-looking red boxes mounted to telephone poles out on the street with a white hook.

Historically, and in cities where the technology still remains for redundancy during cell-network outages, you pull the hook to report a fire.

Inside the red "cottage" fire box was a wind-up mechanism that would turn a key (rotating cylinder) to tap out the telegraph code (ex. "731"). Back at the fire deparment, they'd look up where that number was, and they'd know where to go for the fire call. They'd actually count the bells. Every time that hook would hit, it would ring a bell at the fire department. They'd count the bells, then look it up in the book to see where to go.

Fire boxes still exist a lot in New England, which is where Digitize got started. RB Allen Company would sell the boxes to different communities there that had the call boxes.

Today, the Prism LX will decode the telegraph signals from these fire boxes. You can buy the interfaces for it and decode those boxes.

Although there is a decreasing number of cities equipped with call boxes, we still sell spare parts to keep them running.

The City of Boston has call boxes just about everywhere. The Boston Fire Department certainly views fire boxes as foolproof. It gives them the ability to still get alerts when the cell-phone network is down, which would be important in a disaster, whether natural or man-made.

In our first decades, there were a lot of direct-wire inputs that were used. Some are still active today.

For direct wire, you have a ribbon cable that goes back to the Prism LX so that thousands of dry contacts can be monitored.

Importantly, there's also an end-of-line resistor to provide supervision. At any time, the signal is either flowing freely (closed), resisted by the resistor (inactive but supervised), or broken (wire failure).

The Radio Box family of products stems from our purchase of another product line: Eagle signal radio boxes. They're a red-cottage look. Instead of a telegraph key inside, there are electronics. There's also a battery-backup in it. When you pull the hook, it transmits a code number over AM radio. With a receiver back at the Prism, you can decode the code number, then dispatch (or forward that information to another community).

Wireless radio box fire alarm pull hook
Wireless radio-based fire alarm pull box built and sold by Digitize

Q: Can you tell me about a time when you had to solve a challenging problem for a large-scale client operation?

Jim: Absolutely. One we proposed recently for a major metro rail agency is a VersAlarm that connects via Ethernet but also has another backup method of communication.

The VersAlarm Panels are the new version of the Mux Pad, in that they are designed to work over Ethernet. They give you the same capability of being able to monitor a fire panel's serial output, but also there's 8 dry-contact inputs. That comes in a number of configurations.

Because it was to be installed in an electrical room that also has a telephone line, we suggested that we would simply add a modem. If Ethernet goes down, we can lift the hook up on the phone (via modem) and send information back to the head end. This provides an important alternate method of communication in the event of a LAN failure.

We considered radio, but every electrical room had an existing telephone, so that made more sense. We could just tie into that telephone like a digital dialer/communicator.

The phone line also brought an increased reliability advantage. It would be supervised on a daily basis. There was a Prism LX routine that would dial out to each device every 24 hours to confirm that the VersAlarm panel was still connected.

If someone left the phone off the hook or disconnected phone lines that were previously connected, the Prism LX would detect (within 24 hours) that it failed to connect. It would generate a "Negative Dialer Report", which lists all of the panels that could not be reached on the most recent attempt.

Q: Gentleman, thanks so much for speaking to me. To wrap up: What is the future of Digitize?

Jim: From my perspective as an engineer, I'm very excited about recent deals we've made to increase our manufacturing flexibility. Not only are we going to have new options to build new equipment, but our existing devices will also benefit from a "cleaner" overall fit and finish.

We have a very experienced manufacturer in California (DPS Telecom) who will now be manufacturing both our PCBs and our aluminum/steel enclosures. This will allow us to condense multiple boards into one, and also to avoid unused "knock-out" holes in our metal. I guess nobody really thinks of our technology as overly fashionable, but there's certainly nothing wrong with having a little more style than we have historically. (laughs)

Whether you're a long-time Digitize user or just installing our equipment for the first time, you can expect even better hardware reliability and some new device options in the years to come.

John: From the sales side, that same deal is going to give us a West Coast presence even stronger than we've had before. We'll be visiting you more frequently than we could from our New Jersey HQ.

No matter where you're located, I'll also be able to offer you a range of related monitoring equipment from DPS Telecom that goes beyond the classic Digitize fire-panel monitoring.

In short, Digitize clients can expect a wider range of even more reliable gear. Between DPS Telecom and Digitize, you're looking at a combined 81 years of industry experience!

Got another question for me, Jim, or John? Call us!

I tried to cover a broad range of topics in my interview with engineers Jim and John at Digitize, but I've only scratched the surface.

You must have questions of your own, perhaps about something you need to solve for your company or agency. Don't wait. Just give us a call and ask!

Call me (Andrew Erickson), Jim Sutton, or John Ermatinger at 973-663-1011 or email us at info@digitize-inc.com

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 15 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and opt...