Innovation At The Edge

Fire alarm technology protects scientific concerns

Set on the edge of a ravine, the 540,000-square-foot Ontario Science Centre is the size of a large airport, with three separate buildings on different elevations that descend into the valley. Nearly 1.4 million people visit the center annually to take in exhibits on everything from the science of electricity and space exploration to how the body works.

The center’s goal to get its visitors “lost in science,” wandering from building to building, level to level, is a great premise. However, this “lost” theme can be detrimental to life safety when a fire alarm is triggered somewhere within the massive complex.

“We needed a system that would be user friendly, making it easier for security staff to pinpoint where the alarm was—one that would allow us to zone out an area during private parties,” said John Bradshaw, manager of facility operations and services at the Ontario Science Centre. “All of that combined, that’s what we wanted.”

To develop a flexible, lifelong solution to replace the center’s aging fire alarm system, consultants and facility managers came together with the provincial government, which owns the property, to design a system to meet the center’s myriad fire protection challenges.

“We knew we needed a new system that would go in the future for a minimum of 10 years,” Bradshaw said. “And, we needed it to address the needs of the multiple operations we have here—we have the public coming into the building, we rent our facilities out in daytime and nighttime and there’s shop people and offices in the background.”

The group chose an ONYX Series fire alarm and voice evacuation system from NOTIFIER. Engineering consultant Morrison Hershfield specified a network of six NFS2-3030 fire alarm control panels. These were placed throughout the three buildings and networked together with two ONYXWorks graphic workstations, providing extensive monitoring and control of the entire network.

Master Control with a Bird’s-Eye View

The speed of emergency assessment and response was a critical factor in the system’s design. The center’s new network of fire alarm control panels, smoke detectors, sprinkler monitoring points and specialized gas and aspirating detection devices are tied to the two ONYXWorks workstations. Providing immediate information on the location, cause and progression of fire alarm events, the workstations’ detailed, graphic layouts of the center and its major fire alarm components help facility and security officials quickly decide on the appropriate response.

According to Frank Detlor of Robinson Solutions, the company that engineered and installed the NOTIFIER ONYX Series system, several weeks of work went into designing the floor-by-floor graphics that would appear in the workstations to accurately represent the intricate mix of odd-shaped buildings, levels and sub-basements that make up the Ontario Science Centre.

Designed to have an intuitive interface, ONYXWorks workstations identify system alerts by magnifying the event location and device(s) in alarm while providing both a graphical and written description.

“Now with addressability on all inputs, they can hone right in to where the problem is and deploy their security faster,” Detlor said.

In addition to accurately pinpointing where a problem resides, the new fire alarm monitoring system provides operators with a whole new level of control over any part of the network. The flexibility of being able to simply click icons to temporarily deactivate certain devices will help the center practically eliminate nuisance alarms.

“That flexibility is necessary because the museum takes in a lot of temporary exhibits each year, and bringing them in and setting them up would often lead to false alarms of one sort or another,” Detlor said.

Private events held in different areas of the center have historically led to increased false alarm incidents—a dilemma Bradshaw believes the new monitoring workstations can cure.

“The new system allows security operators to turn off sound alarms in specific areas of certain buildings if, for example, they are being rented out for a private party or a corporate function,” Bradshaw said. “The strobes still flash, but the event isn’t disturbed by what’s likely a non-emergency in another part of the building. If there is a problem, security staff can easily sound alarms in the rented sections.”

In a building containing its own shops for paint, carpentry and other trades, aspiration detection systems play a significant role in quickly and unequivocally verifying true smoke emergencies. Although not required by code, these air-sampling systems provide very early warning smoke detection—a necessity for high-value and critical facilities such as museums, hospitals and data centers.

Saving Life, Property and Investment

The option of using third-party contractors to perform service and maintenance with parts available through a handful of authorized distributors in the region was a big benefit of using this line of technology, according to the property’s management team. NOTIFIER Engineered Systems Distributors, such as Robinson Solutions, have factory-trained staff who are well-versed on the proprietary equipment and who can handle higherlevel programming or additions.

The center’s failing public address system was also in need of help, but its replacement was estimated to cost more than $100,000. Following a few software and programming enhancements made by Robinson Solutions, center staffmembers were able to use the fire alarm system to broadcast routine messages in English and French through its 1,124 speakers dispersed throughout the facility. Robinson Solutions’ repurposing of the NOTIFIER system’s intelligible audio capabilities in this way saved the center close to $90,000, according to Rowe.

To protect its life safety investment, the center made sure its new system had both the capacity and capability to easily expand to accommodate future facility growth. Additional nodes and devices can be added if needed, though the center claims to have no plans to do so at this point.

Modern Fire Response Technology

The consultants who wrote the project’s specs were big proponents of including a unique emergency scene assessment tool made for and designed by firefighters. The FirstVision tool from NOTIFIER is a touchscreen display prominently located at the main doors for easy access. The unit helps first responders determine the origin and migration of a fire and locations of emergency alerts, potential hazards or areas of refuge within the affected areas. Interactive floor-by-floor layouts of the center depicting activated fire alarm components, water supplies, fire barriers, emergency shut-off valves and other site-specific details enable emergency officials to make fast, effective response plans.

“They wanted FirstVision because of its cutting-edge technology, appropriate for use at a center that’s all about the state-of-the-art and exploration,” Detlor said.

The facility employed a single, integrated fire alarm solution to improve the speed of its emergency response and reduce false alarms, and to benefit from some cost-saving features. Ultimately, the technology chosen to protect its visitors and properties exemplifies many of the same cutting-edge attributes demonstrated in the center’s own scientific exhibitions.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Security Today.

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