Life safety systems – facing up to new threats

5th January 2009

Facilities Management Excellent publiushes article by Rick Love, senior product manager, Notifier by Honeywell.

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

As a result, much work is underway to determine the potential scale of such risks and put in place appropriate responses. 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.

Thus, in the case of a bomb alert in a city centre, a phased evacuation strategy will be required to get people out safely and 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 that 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.

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 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), now in force, 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.

In summary, end-users may recognise the need to address these issues, but few will have the expertise to deal with all of them 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.

The result must be 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.