A Conversation with Richard Connor

The retail environment is truly changing, but when it comes to fire systems, a retrofit might be the best upgrade and possibly the best solution. We wanted to know more about retail activities combined with fire protection, so we sat down with Richard Connor, a product manager at NOTIFIER, to find out more.

Q. What benefits can retail facilities gain from updating their fire protection systems?

A. A fire protection system upgrade can improve areas of detection, notification and monitoring. It reduces the risk of high maintenance costs and disruption in operations. Older legacy systems are much more prone to incidents involving poor detection, false alarms and excessive maintenance alerts.

This is especially vital for single or multi-story properties that have a large retail space and high foot traffic. Retailers should engage fire and security experts to ensure the fire alarm system has a positive impact and is not an impediment to risk and crisis management plans.

Q. What potential impact can older legacy systems have on a retail facility’s bottom line?

A. More than ever, retailers are focusing on security and operating efficiency. Unfortunately, the fire alarm may not receive the attention necessary to evaluate its impact on the business’s profit and loss statement. Operating a legacy system for many years is advantageous to controlling life-cycle costs; however, investing in newer technology offers financial benefits beyond just keeping a legacy fire protection system active. A fire alarm retrofit improves areas of detection, notification and monitoring, all providing a positive contribution to a retail operation’s P&L.

Q. Can you elaborate on the benefits of upgrading a system’s detection?

A. One aspect of the fire alarm system that warrants an update is duct smoke detection in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. Conventional or intelligent duct smoke detectors installed more than 10 years ago are more susceptible to dust that commonly accumulates in an HVAC system than those on the market today. Without the advanced warning provided by today’s technology, this leads to an emergency condition on the fire alarm panel. Local codes may require the facility to be evacuated, therefore creating a disruption to the business. Imagine a false alarm on an important selling day.

A solution is to use the latest technology in conventional duct smoke detectors with means of notifying the loss-prevention staff when the device is reaching the point of requiring service. Another option is the use of intelligent duct smoke detectors with multiple levels of service indicators that are displayed at the system’s addressable fire alarm control panel. These warnings allow for a non-emergency visit by a qualified fire alarm technician before an emergency alarm situation occurs.

In addition to the advanced warning feature, sensing technology has drastically improved over time to reduce false alarms and increase speed of detection.

Upgrading legacy duct smoke detectors, along with a service agreement with a qualified fire alarm company, are the right steps in maintaining up time and reducing out-of-budget expenses.

Q. What can a newer fire alarm notification system really offer?

A. As the need increases to communicate specific instructions and capture the attention of building occupants, voice evacuation systems are used as part of fire alarm notification. Voice evacuation systems have become more prevalent due to changing fire alarm codes and the need to overcome our society’s desensitization to standard fire alarm horns. Legacy systems are mainly horn-type notification, which does not allow for specific messages to be communicated.

As an integral part of a fire alarm system, a voice evacuation system provides the functionality of communicating either pre-recorded or live instructions to occupants. It serves the purpose of evacuation for a fire alarm while providing the capability of specific, live voice messages.

There are advantages to using the digital voice evacuation system versus a standard public address system for emergency communications, including intelligibility of the announcement and continuous supervision of the system to ensure it is 100 percent operational.

Q. Can you expand upon the advantages of intelligibility and supervision?

A. When upgrading to a voice evacuation system, there is an opportunity either to interface to an existing paging system -- to add coverage within the facility -- or replace the PA system. The performance benefit of replacing the PA system is a clear: you get intelligible messages being delivered over a supervised communication path to the fire alarm speakers.

The digital voice evacuation system offers features for background music and non-emergency paging that may be used with approval from the local authority having jurisdiction.

These features make a digital voice system an excellent alternative to a PA system in many applications, thus decreasing the investment and cost of ownership by combining both systems.

Q. You mentioned the monitoring of fire alarm systems can be improved with new technology. How?

A. The ability to receive and review detailed emergency information from the fire alarm systems in all store locations is beneficial for loss-prevention professionals. Information from the individual locations helps identify issues early and reduce the loss side of the P&L equation. Traditional monitoring included communications to an off -- premises monitoring station over phone lines. Historically, this has been done with a digital alarm communicator transmitter that may not easily lend itself to simultaneous reporting to two locations.

A solution is an IP Communicator that can provide detailed emergency information and communicate over an existing TCP/IP line to the monitoring station and corporate office. Specific, timely information regarding the status of the fire alarm system can be transmitted to IP receivers in both locations.

Moreover, the monthly cost of leasing two phone lines -- approximately $60 per month, per fire alarm control panel -- traditionally used for fire alarm communications with a central station can be eliminated. Increased performance and decreased monitoring costs add real value when considering a fire alarm retrofit.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Security Today.

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