Preventing a Fire

Prepare to Prevent

Using a three-phased approach to prevent disasters

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 corporate assets.

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 transit facilities.

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.

Accurate Assessment

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 situation.

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 scenario.

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 facilities, lives and assets.

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