Making Connections

The ability to connect securely to fire and safety systems over the Internet for the purpose of monitoring and managing response, and facilitating alarm and event notification, has many advantages. Rules-based automation to a pager can help eliminate human error during notification, for example, and provide emergency personnel with critical information. Detailed event reporting also can help determine preventive-maintenance schedules or enable rapid troubleshooting.

In an education environment, Internet connectivity offers advantages that can enhance the safety of building occupants and help protect property. Whether the setting is an elementary school, a secondary facility or a university campus, Internet communication can help administrators better manage educational properties.

Understanding how Internet connectivity can be applied to a variety of education situations is the first step to enhancing fire and safety systems already in use, or when planning for the installation of a new system.

Unique challenges

Education facilities often are an amalgam of volatile ingredients, including laboratories with a variety of chemicals and natural gas, busy kitchens with hot stoves and ovens, industrial cleansers and other janitorial supplies, and children or young adults. This combination requires that fire and safety systems be in top working order, and that the personnel assigned to monitor and maintain fire and safety systems remain vigilant.

The danger is greater in schools with residential facilities, and colleges and universities. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, the danger of a residence-hall fire emergency at education facilities is as much as four times greater when school is in session than during the summer months. This increase is attributable to such factors as in-room cooking, electrical outlet overload, smoking and intentionally set fires — which account for one-third of all residence-hall fires.

Persistent false alarms and system troubles cry “wolf” every day, increasing the risk that human nature will override good judgment. This point is illustrated by the January 2000 fire at Seton Hall University; three students died and 58 people were injured in a residence hall fire. On the morning of the fire, students accustomed to false alarms — 18 in the previous four months — ignored alarms initially.

With lives and property hanging in the balance, education facility managers need tools that can help overcome the human element and mitigate the risks.

Internet connectivity

No amount of technology or training can eliminate the danger of fire or other hazardous situations, but with each innovation and improvement in fire-safety techniques, risks to life and property can be minimized. The application of Internet communications to fire and safety systems has yielded numerous benefits to facility managers.

Internet-enabled systems serve as a backup to live monitoring; they initiate a series of notifications via pager, for instance, that would be triggered automatically based on the type of event. Priority would not be a matter of human judgment, but instead, automatically dictated by a set of rules established by management.

As an example, trouble signals might automatically initiate immediate pager notification to individuals designated by facility management as primary responders; actual alarm signals could prompt senior management as well. Keeping close tabs on trouble signals or malicious false alarms can minimize the number of false alarms experienced, and with automated notification, there is no chance for a potentially costly alarm to be overlooked or ignored because of human error.

And in all these cases, e-mails can be generated, providing an event log for review and establishing an audit trail to aid recordkeeping or event reconstruction.

This automated capability does not supplant a system's primary notification connection to the fire department, but acts as a supplement.

Detailed information

The most noticeable benefit to Internet communication with fire and safety systems may be how it helps facility managers do their jobs more efficiently.

For common education environments — such as a single structure with mixed-use spaces, a multibuilding campus or geographically distributed satellite facilities — the advantages to Internet connectivity are clear. In fact, the more complex the system is, the greater the value of Internet connectivity.

Using a web console with simple click-through viewing, facility managers can view device status, establish periodic system reports via e-mail, and extract more information in greater detail from their fire and life-safety systems than is possible with standard system operation. Consolidating system status onto a browser-based platform means that maintenance on specific devices can be conducted more efficiently. Plus, the more advanced devices that provide an early warning of potential trouble enable preventive maintenance to be performed in a timely manner, and target devices that need it most.

This is an especially valuable feature in an education setting where conditions may require a more active maintenance regimen, or where buildings prone to frequent trouble signals or false alarms can be identified and analyzed for possible cause and prevention.

As information is reported, facilities managers can export the data into standard spreadsheets or other software for analysis. Over time, more efficient maintenance schedules can be established based on system needs. If human tampering is evident, such as disabled smoke detectors, programs can be established to make students aware of the dangers of fire complacency. If malicious activity is determined, such as unwarranted activation of pull stations or purposely set fires, patterns may be recognized that could be used by law enforcement. In older buildings, alarms or troubles may be the result of spaces used for inappropriate purposes, or they may hint at a need for upgraded wiring or other retrofit.

Technical elements

An Internet-enabled fire and life-safety system can be established as part of a new installation or as a card-based upgrade to certain alarm panels already installed. The card-based configuration offers cost savings over a dedicated workstation and provides flexibility with regard to collecting and managing information. How it works:

  • Configuration

    Each device within a fire and safety network is assigned a unique Internet protocol (IP) address that allows the viewing of and communication with individual elements of the system, rather than simply providing zone-by-zone status. The fire and life-safety network then interfaces with a corporate data network in the same manner that any other computer appliance would be added. This means that software can be upgraded as the system is expanded or enhanced.

  • Security

    In keeping with UL requirements, Internet-connected devices are designed so that they cannot be disabled remotely. This helps prevent a compromise of system operation and facility safety through either accidental or intentional activity.

Established behind a corporate network firewall, fire and life-safety network security is enhanced by both an organization's existing security measures and also by the fact that the operating system is proprietary.

In many environments, Internet-enabled communications have proven their worth by providing cost- and time-saving efficiencies, while enhancing overall system operation.

Because budgets often are a concern, it is important to note that Internet connectivity upgrades typically are low-cost and can save money in the long term. Remote Internet communications have been used to enable system programming during normal hours of operation. Changes can be made when they are needed without compromising system operation or building safety.

Haynes is director of product line marketing for SimplexGrinnell, Westminster, Mass.

NOTABLE

Potential fire hazards in residence-hall rooms:

  • DECORATIONS
  • ELECTRICAL OVERLOADS
  • APPLIANCES
  • PORTABLE ELECTRIC HEATERS
  • OPEN FLAMES
  • TRASH
  • FLAMMABLE LIQUIDS (AND OTHER HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS)
  • SMOKING
  • HALOGEN LAMPS
  • FOAM RUBBER
  • COOKING

Source: The Fire & Life-Safety Group (FLS), University of Colorado at Boulder, http://fm.colorado.edu/firesafety/residencehalls_000.html

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