A co-ordinated response to life safety

18th August 2008

Facilities Management Journal publishes article by John Simpson, Notifer by Honeywell sales leader.

Today, one of the more important security issues organisations have to address is how to protect their staff and their business from a broad range of external threats, including man-made and natural disasters.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London - and with the 2012 London Olympics on the near horizon - much has changed in this area. As a result, much work is underway to determine the potential scale of new threats and put in place appropriate technologies and procedures.

Life safety systems will play a critical role as part of an effective co-ordinated response, both in making employees and other occupants of a building aware of an alert and ensuring fast and safe evacuation. In this context, a fire safety system is no longer solely focused on detecting a fire and getting people out of the building. Rather, it must form part of a broader communications system enabling evacuation in response to any number of risks, of which fire is only one.

External support

End-users may recognise the need to address the issue, but few will have the expertise to deal with it in-house. As a result, they will typically use third party experts who understand both the nature of the new threats and associated risks and the variety of fire safety solutions available to meet them. What will be required is a risk strategy, which utilises existing and/or new equipment to mitigate a greater breadth and scale of risk in the most cost-effective way.

The whole value chain has to work together in order to develop and create new strategies in the face of a wholly different kind of threat. This has particular implications for both installers and manufacturers.

From a specifier/installer perspective, they are no longer simply dealing with risks associated with fire and so will need to acquire new skills beyond their existing core competences in designing, commissioning, installing and maintaining life safety systems.

A simple example will illustrate the change in thinking required. Many companies operate an access control system, which restricts entry and exit from a building. New risk strategies will significantly increase the need to override such systems, in order to provide a safe and effective evacuation.

In the case of a bomb alert in a city centre, a phased evacuation strategy will be required to get people out safely, as in some circumstances it is unlikely that the stairwells of high-rise buildings will be able to cope with an uncoordinated mass evacuation.

Here, the need to provide a flexible solution which meets the sometimes conflicting imperatives of security and fire safety has led to the growth of Voice Alarm and Public Address (VAPA) systems. Unlike simple voice alarms, which use a set of pre-recorded messages, VAPA systems can by-pass these, using a microphone to speak to individual areas or groups of people as and when the need arises.

Safety for all

Under the Disability Discrimination Act, the use of loop beacons, for example, has enabled the proliferation of lower powered visible as well as audible devices, to provide adequate warning for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Similarly, the concept of disabled refuges has been developed in order to provide safe areas for the physically disabled or partially sighted to congregate in order for them to be evacuated separately and safely. Supporting this, an EVCS (emergency voice communication system) enables staff at a central point - such as the reception desk, fire panel or dedicated fire control centre – to maintain contact with the refuge and reassure individuals that help is on its way.

Additional functionality needed within the alarm system to deal with more complex events has led to the emergence of ‘control matrix’ solutions. Instead of a simple alarm bell or sounder clearing a whole building or site, the highly sophisticated Control by Event software enables the development and inclusion of a number of ‘what if’ scenarios to determine the most effective staged evacuation procedure.

So, on a large site with several buildings and multiple fire systems, the nature and extent of the attack (fire, bomb threat, flooding etc.) will determine the sequence of any evacuation and may even allow for more distant buildings to remain unaffected and continue working.

Regulatory change

Life safety equipment manufacturers such as Notifier® by Honeywell have had to reappraise existing technologies in order to provide a variety of solutions to meet the new circumstances.

At the same time, recent legislative changes have seen responsibility for adequate fire safety provision shift from the enforcement authorities to employers and other building owners and occupiers.

This has culminated in the latest Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRFSO), which came into force on 1 October 2006, under which the ‘responsible person’ – typically a facilities manager or equivalent reporting to a senior executive – must be able to demonstrate that the fire detection and alarm system is both suitable and has been designed, installed and maintained professionally, in order to prove compliance.

Having said that of course, ensuring that a fire safety system is capable of playing its full part in meeting a new scale of threat is much more than about legal compliance and business continuity…people’s lives will depend on it.