The Importance of Keeping Alarms Up to Date

The Importance of Keeping Alarms Up to Date

High-rise fire alarm upgrade improves tenant safety and aids building management

During the 1960s, Arlington, Va. and the entire Washington, D.C. area experienced tremendous growth as demand for office space soared and new residents flocked to the region for employment. County planners and engineers saw an opportunity to manage this growth in a way that would reimagine their communities, reduce dependence on cars, and revitalize struggling retail and business areas. Ultimately, the county planners connected already-thriving residential neighborhoods to public transportation, jobs, schools, parks, shops and services. This is where Ballston Station in Arlington comes into play.

Constructed in 1990 in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, this eight-story building has more than 275,000 square feet of commercial office space. Ballston Station has fit perfectly into Arlington County’s mix of office, multi-family residential and retail, providing a 24-hour live, work and play environment that numerous businesses have used to successfully recruit employees. The high-rise’s first floor includes retail tenants such as Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande Cafe, Willow Restaurant and Ascot Diamonds. The remaining seven floors house a variety of commercial tenants, including Deloitte, Lockheed Martin and the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation.

In 2014, building engineers had to address Ballston Station’s antiquated fire alarm system. Installed when the building was built nearly 25 years ago, the old, non-addressable fire alarm and voice communications system was starting to fail. Acquiring proper support and service for the proprietary system had become a challenge, causing the property management company and building owner to seek out a replacement.

“There were far too many problems with the old system going into trouble and false alarm conditions,” said Al Gray of Cushman Wakefield, the property management firm of Ballston Station. “For instance, the circuit board cards would easily work themselves loose and cause unnecessary alarms and subsequent problems.”

What’s more, the new system had to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by adding more notification appliance circuit (NAC) coverage to certain areas to include more strobes and speakers. The NAC upgrade applied to the main lobby, garage, penthouse and elevator machine rooms as well as hallways and other core areas.

The building’s graphic annunciator panel needed updating as a result of the new Arlington County mandates. Formally numbered as “1, 2, 3, etc.,” new requirements prescribed that these stairwell emergency exits must be referenced using letters “A, B, C, etc.” so as not to be confused with the elevator numbering sequence.

The property manager wanted a less proprietary solution, along with the ease-of-use and comprehensive event information of an advanced addressable system. Rolf Jensen & Associates was hired as the fire protection consultant on the project and the building’s long-time electrical contractor recommended local life safety integrator Alarm Tech Solutions to offer an affordable, effective solution.

Alarm Tech Solutions provided a thorough proposal, complete with a demonstration of the proposed Gamewell- FCI E3 Series fire alarm and emergency communication system. Building engineers liked the E3 Series’ features, particularly the intuitive nature of its touchscreen Network Graphic Annunciator (NGA). First responders and building engineers are able to quickly access and interpret data from the NGA—its display walks the user through every step of the process when responding to an alarm, supervisory or system trouble event.

“The recommendation from the electrical contractor combined with a comprehensive proposal and system demonstration gave the owner and property management team confidence this solution offered the best value,” said Marty Smith, president and CEO of Alarm Tech Solutions.

The addressability of the new system would give building engineers the ability to disable and enable various points during construction or remodeling projects, instead of taking the whole system offline, as was the case with the old conventional system. Although only communicating fire alarm alerts at this time, the new system’s emergency communications capabilities can be easily expanded to include voice alerts for other threats such as severe weather and acts of violence.

Since Ballston Station was fully occupied during the system replacement, an interface between the two systems had to be established so that activation of an initiating device on either the existing system or the new system would properly activate notification appliances (speakers and strobes); building systems functions (elevator recall, stair pressurization and other fan controls); and the annunciator.

Alarm Tech Solutions and the electrical contractor examined the existing initiating device circuit wiring and determined it could be used for the signaling line circuit (SLC) to serve the new addressable devices—a big saver of time, money and labor.

The existing system did have lowvoltage, fire alarm, power-limiting wire mixed with 120VAC power wire in the same raceway. To support the new system, riser conduits were installed for new SLC wiring for the vertical riser which connected to existing single conductor, non-twisted and non-shielded wire on each floor for the addressable devices.

Both new and old systems were interfaced to ensure activation of an alarm on either system during the transition phase would perform the required fire safety functions. Each floor was changed over one-at-a-time and pretested prior to moving on to the next floor.

The changeover was successful, with positive results from the fire marshal’s acceptance testing and the Arlington County annual inspection. This eliminated a lot of nervous tension for the building engineer—stress that had taken place each year with the old system.

Much of the success can be attributed to superior project management, particularly when the original electrical contractor went out of business more than halfway through the job. Cushman Wakefield worked diligently to execute a contract with another electrical contractor, Power Services, to complete the project. Alarm Tech Solutions, Power Services and Cushman Wakefield collaborated closely to minimize the impact of the change in contractors and completed the project very smoothly.

The new addressable system offers much more detailed information on each alarm event, leading to a faster, more effective response by building engineers and first responders. A NGA in the engineer’s office enables immediate identification of any issues without rushing to the first floor fire control room to investigate.

“A primary benefit is the ability to disable and enable specific areas instead of entire circuits, or even floors, at a time,” Gray said. “It’s easy to read the history and data stored, and if we have any problems, need any parts or programming, we don’t have to rely on one sole proprietary service provider.”

In addition, automated supervisory or maintenance alerts inform building engineers when a device or other component needs maintenance. This greatly minimizes nuisance alarms and tenant disruptions.

“Building engineers are delighted with the substantial increase in the system’s reliability as well as the intuitive nature of the system,” said Smith.

From an antiquated and failing fire protection system to a state-of-the-art fire alarm and voice evacuation system, Ballston Station has established a higher level of safety for its tenants—and added another competitive advantage to market to prospective tenants.

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Security Today.

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