Ask the Expert

This month’s expert examines the role life safety systems play in the security industry.

Camera and access control systems, with their ever-changing technological advances, often seem to get the most publicity in the security industry. Often overlooked are vital life safety systems that protect people's well being. We spoke to Steve Morefield, president of Firstline Security Systems Inc., to get an overview of life safety technologies.

ISSUE: What drives the need for life safety systems?

SOLUTION: One of the most important items to think about in life safety is protecting a facility against fire. There were more than 3,400 fire-related deaths in 2007, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, with an estimated property loss of more than $14.5 billion. This number has increased from last year and may get worse.

A recent symposium from The Fire Protection Research Foundation concluded that the growing number of seniors will require a higher degree of investment in fire monitoring and protection procedures.

Passive methods for fire protection are steps to best prepare a facility before a fire occurs. Fire-resistant materials for walls and floors, and correctly designed occupancy separation can slow down the spread of a fire.

ISSUE: What are some of the different life safety systems that protect facilities and people?

SOLUTION: First of all, active systems are vital to mitigate the spread of fires. Sprinklers can be used in combination with alarm and monitoring technology to activate when smoke is detected. Some alarm systems include manual "pull stations" where a lever can be lowered to initiate an alarm. This system requires facility users to be aware of a fire, but there also are automated monitoring systems available, in which trained personnel monitor alarms and call first responders in case of an emergency.

Monitoring systems should not be limited to just fire detection, but also carbon monoxide detection. Known as the silent killer, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning in the United States, killing more than 500 people and sending more than 20,000 people to emergency rooms each year. It is odorless, colorless and fatal in minutes. Thankfully, carbon monoxide monitoring systems are very successful at detection and are wise investments.

Technology to monitor for fire or carbon monoxide may already be in place in many facilities, but this equipment needs continued maintenance and testing to ensure it is working correctly. A system's ability to detect harmful substances may be slowed by accumulated dust, and sensors could become overly sensitive or not sensitive enough. Detectors that operated on batteries need to be inspected every six months.

Rigorous, regular inspections are important. A quick visual test may not accurately detect if a system is working properly. System integrators are available to provide a walkthrough of a facility to identify vulnerabilities and perform maintenance on equipment.

An experienced integrator also will be able to determine if the facility is up to date with the most recent codes and standards. For instance, new trends in warning procedures include mass notification systems that not only sound an alarm during a fire but also send a voicemail, e-mail or text message to facility occupants.

Technologies and procedures are ever-changing in the security industry, and it might be time to get a refresher from an experienced integrator. If alarm and monitoring systems have not been inspected in a while, think about asking an integrator for an inspection.

READER QUESTION: Our facility's security system has not been inspected or maintained for several years. What equipment usually needs to be replaced first, and which lasts a little bit longer? Our new budget is limited, so we may have to prioritize our purchases—what should we look at first?

SOLUTION: Regarding your access control system, the first items to look at will be the backup batteries, which need to be changed at least every two years, and the system software, which probably needs updating. Have the entire system checked for correct operation, which includes updating the cardholder database and door portal (e.g., the card reader, locking hardware and door contact), and clean the field panels and power supplies.

Current control panels and power supplies are pretty reliable and don't become outdated too quickly, so these do not present an immediate concern. In a video surveillance application, you will want to clean the cameras, including the lens, housing and connections. Then verify the operation of the DVR/NVR and make any necessary updates. The monitors also should be cleaned, and check any backup power supplies (access control included) to make sure the batteries and charging system are functioning correctly.

Speak with the IT director to find out if the equipment is causing any concerns with the timing of information transfer or even the bandwidth use.

About the Author

Steve Morefield is president of Firstline Security Systems Inc.

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