A Better Connection

With increasing use of VoIP as an alternative to conventional circuit switched phone services, security and life safety professionals are looking to the Internet for communicating information from fire alarm control panels to a central monitoring station.

IP delivers such benefits as faster data transmissions, reduced costs and the immediate notification of line interruptions at both the central station and the protected premises.

IP provides continuous high-speed communications from the monitored premises to the central station by pinging the panel every 75 seconds. This is a significant improvement over the digital alarm communicator transmitter’s normal once-every-24-hour communication test to check the integrity of a phone line as required by the NFPA 72 national fire alarm code.

When a fire control panel needs to send alarm information to a central station, it also will resend the information every 15 seconds if the IP connection is not established. It will repeat this process until signals are transmitted and received. Signals must be received by a central monitoring station within a defined period from the time of the initial alarm.

Using IP for communications with the central station also can reduce operating costs by eliminating dedicated phone lines for primary and secondary communications. This is especially true for organizations that already have Cat- 5e or Cat-6 wiring installed. For example, many universities and K-12 schools in North America have already made the investment to network their facilities and can now upgrade their life safety systems to use this infrastructure for communications.

A Bridge To IP
Yet, while IP is where the industry is headed, there is a tremendous amount of analog life safety technology installed, compelling security and life safety professionals to investigate hybrid analog and IP systems.

Information transport solutions can serve as a bridge between the analog world and the network. For example, interface solutions can convert signals from the traditional dial-up communicator on an analog fire alarm control panel to IP, which can then be transmitted over the Internet to the receiver at the central station monitoring the facility.

This means an existing DACT communicator can be monitored by an IP interface. The hybrid solution can help leverage any existing control panel investments when upgrading systems and, in many cases, eliminate the need to replace installed fire alarm systems -- a huge savings with almost immediate payback.

Campus Transition
Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., provides an excellent example of the benefits of converting existing systems to IP.

The IT department at Davidson College has an extensive system of life safety equipment installed throughout its buildings.

When the college sought to reduce recurring operating costs for the system, it turned to CRS Building Automation Systems Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., its long-time security and life safety systems integration partner.

Davidson College’s challenge to CRS was to engineer a way to shift the primary monitoring infrastructure for its fire detection systems to its campus fiber network. CRS recommended the installation of IP communications modules.

“The modules would protect the college’s previous investments by allowing them to continue to use their existing fire alarm control panels, while enabling them to move to an IP communication infrastructure,” said Phillip “Skip” Cashion Jr., president of CRS.

In 2007, CRS began installing the dialer capture modules to upgrade the more than 70 fire detection systems that protect the residence halls, classrooms and administrative buildings throughout campus. With the new modules, all of the control panels now use IP as the primary communication method to the central monitoring station.

To provide a back-up communication method, telephone lines create redundancy in Davidson’s system. Phone lines connecting the fire alarm control panels to the college’s private branch exchange switch ensure the system design adheres to codes set by the NFPA, which require two independent means of communication to the central monitoring station.

In case of an electrical outage, the PBX switch is reinforced with an uninterruptible power supply that will keep the phone system running until the generator starts.

This redundancy ensures the control panels’ back-up communication method is always available.

Phone Lines Eliminated
Before the installation of the modules, two phone lines connected each panel to the public switched telephone network for primary and backup communications. This system design required 140 dedicated phone lines at a cost of approximately $50,000 per year to communicate with the central monitoring station. By moving communications to the Internet and through the PBX, Davidson was able to eliminate the direct connections to the PSTN for each panel, reducing the system’s recurring operations costs significantly.

“We have already experienced a 50 percent cost savings now and expect that number to increase to 75 percent in the future,” said Brent Babb, project manager at Davidson College.

In addition, the upgrade has increased the speed of communications to the central station. Speed of communication is an important factor for Davidson because the college does not have a manned office for monitoring alarms from its fire detection systems. Alarm reports are sent directly to the central station. Faster transmission to the central station improves response time to an alarm by the campus’ 24-hour police service and the town’s fire department.

The upgrade also has helped the college reduce the amount of time required to fix any issues affecting the system.

Added Knowledge, Control
“We have more knowledge and control over the system now,” Babb said. “When we relied on the phone company, we often would not know if one of the phone lines was down unless a service technician alerted us, or there was a problem with communication between one of the fire alarm control panels and the central station.

“Now, as a result of the 24/7 monitoring we have set up on our phone and network system, the IT staff is automatically alerted if there is a network or phone line problem, and we can dispatch a staff member to fix the issue at any hour of the day.”

While Davidson College represents a solid case study for upgrading legacy fire systems, there are other considerations that security and technology managers may want to keep in mind as they investigate IP communications for their systems.

First, not all interface solutions are the same. While some solutions convert the data from the panel to IP, the speed at which they communicate this package to the central station receiver is actually closer to that of a digital dialer. To gain the full benefits of IP technology, security and technology managers should look for solutions that transmit the package at true IP speeds.

Second, it also is important to ensure the product is UL listed for use with fire alarm systems. Products bearing the UL certification have been evaluated against rigorous safety requirements developed by Underwriters Laboratories Inc., which serves as an independent, nationally recognized testing laboratory.

While there is much to consider when upgrading a legacy fire system to communicate over IP, the benefits are clear when you consider the increased speed of communications and the potential for significant cost savings. In today’s economic climate, reducing costs is an extremely important measure for all departments within an organization.

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