Digitalization Opens the Door to Smarter Fire and Life Safety Systems

By Sameer Agrawal, vice president and general manager, Fire Americas, Honeywell Building Technologies

A fire and life safety system – arguably the most essential component in a building – is the only one not used daily. This makes it easy to overlook when modernizing a building. While digitalization has transformed numerous systems in this era of increasingly smart buildings, digital fire safety technology often remains the missing link to a truly connected building.

Existing communications infrastructure that links fire alarm control panels to first responders often uses legacy analog and/or manual technology that can be slow and unreliable. In fact, fire safety as an industry has generally been hesitant to embrace new technologies – even if ‘what is working’ isn’t necessarily driving optimum results.

A building’s fire panel dialer, for example, can potentially create a disconnect if it doesn’t communicate properly with the local central monitoring station (CMS) – a very real possibility, as all major U.S. telecom carriers are currently sunsetting legacy technologies to free up bandwidth for 5G cellular service. At the other end of the chain – between dispatchers and first responders – older equipment can also create a bottleneck, as voice communication via analog radio equipment and loudspeakers slows transmission and can compromise its accuracy.

Stay out in front of evolving technology

There’s potential for change, though. Digitalization can make fully connected buildings a reality, bringing the most critical system in the building online using the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and mobile data applications. Incorporating IoT-based tools into a fire system provides numerous benefits – from making sure maintenance checks are conducted as specified by local authorities to providing first responders with real-time, up-to-date information that can potentially decrease their response times.

Devices that used to operate independently – such as fire alarm components – are now being embedded with sensors and software so they can exchange data with other devices and systems via the IoT. Cloud computing provides a powerful, off-premise platform that aggregates and analyzes IoT data to make it more useful and enables system-of-systems command and control of buildings. Mobile apps now allow facility managers and fire technicians to connect from anywhere to monitor and manage fire systems remotely via the cloud.

Digitalization can also help future-proof emergency communications at almost every node between the fire panel and the first responder. At the front end, a digital communicator takes the risk of sunsetting telecom systems out of the equation. The latest communicators send both Internet and 5G cellular signals to the CMS at speeds unattainable with older technology. These devices also provide hourly polling to notify the CMS that it’s functioning properly as well as backup power and a supervised wire.

Another recent innovation is a centralized platform that enables remote access to a fire system to diagnosis where a problem lies before sending technicians onsite. Even when onsite, there are tools available to efficiently complete tasks mandated by local authorities. One such solution, Honeywell Connected Life Safety Services (CLSS), provides an IoT-based suite of tools that loops technicians into the cloud, allowing them to run an automated test/inspect sequence from anywhere in the building, create a properly formatted inspection report and send it to local authorities. It also unlocks the power of predictive maintenance: technicians can see in real time which devices are activated and which may soon malfunction, for example, dirty detectors. They can also help identify false alarms and diagnose other problems, so if a technician does have to enter the building, they know in advance what needs fixing, which saves time and minimizes disruption.

Digitalization is transforming the critical dispatcher-to-fire station link as well. Automated alerting improves the speed, accuracy and intelligibility of critical information transmitted to firefighters and EMTs. They can now receive calm, clear, robotically generated messages that can be programmed to pronounce difficult local street names correctly. These are broadcast over high-fidelity speakers and displayed on monitors throughout the station – which can also be programmed to modulate volume and exclude bedrooms where personnel are sleeping who are not required to answer the call.

At the other end of this link, new technology can also improve the accuracy of 911 dispatchers. Once the dispatcher enters the initial alert information, the system can automatically alert all selected fire stations simultaneously, eliminating the need for manual notification of each one in succession. This frees the dispatcher to continue taking caller details and, if need be, to offer direction to the reporting party. Automated alerting also helps dispatchers avoid stack-up if they receive two or more calls back-to-back, which can potentially add minutes – not just seconds – to firefighters’ response time.

Avoid potential disconnects – without breaking the budget

Building owners and community leaders face tough spending decisions these days, but the time to act is now to preempt a possible disconnect in emergency communications. They may, however, be surprised to learn that Honeywell authorized alarm service providers can often convert existing equipment to digital technologies requiring little to no capital investments, while reducing their annual operating expenditures.

Building owners should view fire and life safety systems as critical investments in protecting their occupants and assets – not as mere check-the-box obligations. Today’s rapidly evolving technologies make it imperative that owners take a hard look at the fire and life safety systems in their buildings – which may be out of sync with current emergency communications systems in the community. The digital technology is here today that can better protect the occupants who depend on them.