Prepare to Prevent
Using a three-phased approach to prevent disasters
- By Mariann McDonagh
- Nov 06, 2009
When it comes to homeland security, one of the most daunting
challenges still facing enterprises and government agencies
today is how to protect employees and critical infrastructure
from the threat of disaster caused by fire and other unseen
hazards. Fire presents an enormous safety risk to employees
and can cause catastrophic damage to public and corporate assets. Damage resulting
in financial losses often cripples an organization.
But why is disaster prevention still such a challenge? After all, smoke detectors
are mandated by building codes, and organizations are required to have emergency
evacuation procedures in place. The unfortunate truth is that many smoke detection
and alarm technologies are unreliable. Delayed and false alarms reduce reaction
time and public response. Traditional fire detection technologies also are limited in
the scope of threats they're capable of identifying. Unseen threats, such as carbon
monoxide, often go undetected in many facilities.
In addition, most fire and life safety systems and personnel are siloed from
security teams, which limits the visibility required for accurate emergency assessment.
As a result, public safety personnel have no way of accurately identifying
threats in a timely manner to mount a rapid and effective response.
However, with the right combination of proper procedures and reliable technologies,
risks from fire and unseen disasters can be significantly reduced.
A three-phased approach to disaster prevention involves:
Very early warning detection. Identifying threats at the earliest possible moment
in order to reduce false alarms and optimize response time.
Accurate assessment. Integrating fire and life safety with security systems and
data to facilitate accurate threat assessment.
Effective rapid response. Breaking down information silos and sharing emergency
data across platforms and personnel to initiate a rapid and effective response.
Very Early Warning
When it comes to disaster prevention, the most critical of all three phases is very
early warning detection. The sooner you are aware of an impending threat, the
more prepared you are to respond.
Early detection of fire-related disaster. To respond to fire-related disasters, it is
important to understand how a fire typically progresses from its earliest origins
into an all-consuming blaze.
The beginning stage of a fire is called the incipient stage. This is when invisible
smoldering smoke is emitted before any flames are present. The smoke level at this
stage is typically very low and is often not visibly detectable by the human eye, nor
does it trigger most conventional smoke alarms.
In the second stage, the smoke becomes clearly visible. It is at this point that most conventional detection technologies
begin to react. Unfortunately, once
the fire reaches the second phase, it
progresses rapidly into the third phase,
during which flames are clearly visible
and evacuations have typically begun.
By the time the fire reaches the fourth
stage, heat levels are high enough to
trigger fire suppression systems, often
causing significant and costly damage
to assets and infrastructure.
If policies and technologies are in
place to provide reliable very early
warning detection of an impending
fire, public safety personnel can stop
the threat before it progresses beyond
the first phase. This protects both people
and infrastructure while avoiding
any disruption to regular operations.
It also significantly reduces risks to
Advanced smoke detection. To facilitate
very early warning detection
of fire-related threats, organizations
must choose the right smoke detection
technology for their application. When
specifying smoke detection technologies,
many public safety and security
personnel and consultants may not be
aware of factors that impact requirements.
Large, open facilities including
public entertainment venues, sports
arenas and warehouses have very different
smoke detection requirements
from enclosed manufacturing or public
There are several types of conventional
smoke detection technologies that
attempt to meet these various requirements,
including spot detectors, beam
detectors and rate of heat-rise detectors.
While these technologies may meet existing
fire codes and requirements, they
often fail to provide critical very early
warning in the initial incipient stage of
a fire. They also are plagued with false
alarms that result from dust and other
airborne contaminants. In addition,
conventional smoke detection and alarm
systems do not provide addressability or
the ability to pinpoint the precise location
of a fire-related threat.
Aspirating smoke detection technology,
however, uses a unique approach
to produce reliable very early
warning, addressable alarms. ASDs
detect the earliest presence of smoke
in a wide array of environments by
capturing air samples through multiple
sampling tubes spread across a facility.
These samples are quickly transported
through a sophisticated filtration system
to remove dust and other contaminants
that cause false alarms in
conventional smoke detectors. The
samples pass through a highly sensitive
centralized laser detection unit
that is capable of detecting the slightest
presence of smoke and its exact location
to produce very early warning,
addressable alarms. The entire process
takes only seconds. Because ASDs are
actively sampling air in a facility, they
are effective in both high airflow and
enclosed, restricted environments.
Very early warning against unseen
threats. In many environments, disaster
can result from unseen airborne threats
as well. Naturally occurring build-up of
toxic or explosive gases, leakage from
urban utilities, oxygen depletion in service
ducts and crawl spaces, and even
refrigerant leakage can all pose risks to
employees and infrastructure.
Protecting against these threats with
point detectors can put a strain on
personnel resources and is often cost
prohibitive. However, new technology
will soon be available that enables an
existing ASD system to serve multiple roles in detecting smoke, harmful gases
and other unseen threats. Leveraging
existing pipe networks, ASDs can be
expanded to aspirated smoke and gas
detection systems that monitor environmental
hazards and to protect against
threats that are unique to a particular
environment. This dual-purpose role
makes ASDs more cost-effective and
equips an organization to respond to
evolving threats as they emerge.
After addressing the first phase of a disaster
prevention strategy by deploying
effective very early warning technology,
the next phase is to integrate these
warnings with the rest of your public
safety and security assets. Effective
disaster prevention requires seamless
integration between fire and gas protection,
video surveillance and access
control systems. This necessitates crossfunctional
collaboration between fire
and life safety and security personnel.
In most organizations, fire and life
safety personnel are exclusively focused
on monitoring fire alarms and sensors
to manage fire-related threats to people
and assets. Physical security personnel
have a broader view of a facility thanks
to surveillance cameras, access control
devices and building management systems.
Because fire and life safety and
security systems and networks are traditionally
siloed, it is difficult for either
discipline to accurately assess an emergency
By integrating fire alarms with other
physical security systems, both fire and
life safety and security personnel can
achieve broader visibility in real time
through a single common interface.
This facilitates a more intelligent and
accurate assessment of an impending
threat to take preventative measures
and respond accordingly before it escalates
into a disaster.
Take the example of a large entertainment
venue with a variety of public
and private seating areas, equipment
rooms, catwalks, and backstage and
administrative offices. If a fire begins
to smolder in one of the back offices,
a very early warning smoke detection
system will initiate a fire alarm. Security
personnel, working in tandem with
fire and safety managers, can isolate the
area using access control devices and
investigate further using surveillance
cameras in the vicinity to assess the
situation. Decisions can then be made
as to what suppression measures are
necessary, what personnel resources are
needed where and what level of evacuation
procedures should be initiated.
Effective Rapid Response
The third and final phase of a disaster
prevention strategy combines the first
two phases for comprehensive, actionable
emergency response. By combining
very early warning technology with
an integrated approach to situational
assessment, organizations are fully prepared
with the comprehensive, real-time
information they require to take rapid
and appropriate counter-measures.
First and foremost, organizations
must initiate whatever measures
necessary to preserve human life followed
by minimizing damage to critical
infrastructure and assets. While
an appropriate response is crucial,
a disproportionate response can be
disruptive to operations.
With proper early warning and accurate
situational assessment, fire and
life safety and security personnel can
work together to initiate automated and
manual emergency response procedures,
including smoke exhaust and ventilation
activation, analysis of personnel
locations within the facility, operation
shut-down and facility evacuation. The
availability of real-time situational data
also allows for adaptation of responses
based on escalating threat levels.
It is important to have clear, accessible
documentation in place that outlines
emergency response procedures.
In addition, regular emergency system
tests and evacuation drills identify any
hidden inefficiencies in the procedures
and ensure that all personnel understand
their roles in the event of a disaster
Modern enterprises and governments
are faced with an ever-changing
threat landscape that presents new
fire and life safety and security challenges.
With a fundamental approach
to disaster prevention that combines
very early warning detection, an integrated
approach to threat assessment
and effective rapid response procedures,
organizations will be better
equipped to handle fire and unseen
threats before they escalate, safeguarding
lives and assets.