High Rise Upgrade

Luxury condominium complex seeks manageable fire alarm solution

The recently upgraded fire alarm system at the Gulf and Bay Club in Sarasota, Fla., has been a big improvement for the gated condo community’s residents and management, as well as the guards who are on duty 24/7. The Gulf and Bay Club comprises six apartment buildings, each with as many as 70 individual condominium residences as well as several outbuildings.

The system, which was installed by Sarasota-based Fire Brigade Alarm Systems, features 12 Farenhyt IFP-2000 fire alarm control panels from Silent Knight, networked together by fiber-optic cable. The addressable system offers immediate identification of alarm locations and ease of monitoring one network by tying together each building’s systems, which has improved its maintenance and management— ultimately providing better protection for condo residents. Using an IP line for reporting fire alarm signals to a central monitoring station has also helped to reduce costs while increasing the system’s communications reliability. “It’s a modern system,” said Connie Bittle, general manager for the Gulf and Bay Club. “It’s put us in a whole different place.”

Condo Control Challenge

Before the installation of the Farenhyt system in the summer of 2011, the Gulf and Bay Club had an older fire alarm system that left a lot to be desired. The system originally included smoke detectors in every residential unit. Over the years, a number of condo owners had enlisted private contractors to renovate their units, which frequently led to the removal of smoke detectors and/or notification devices. Some units were even found to have stand-alone 120-volt smoke detectors.

Tampering with and removal of devices such as these are often not detected by older conventional fire alarm systems, which can lead to significant liability issues. “Sometimes the unit contractor would splice wires together so the system would keep running, and we had no idea what devices were missing and not being monitored by our system,” Bittle said.

When the older conventional system registered an alarm, a sounder in the guardhouse indicated in which building the alarm was triggered but offered no other specifics as to its location. When guards investigated, they often had to check the building floor by floor, and even unit by unit, to determine where the alarm had occurred.

David Perna, president of Fire Brigade Alarm Systems, noted another problem with the previous system. For monitoring purposes, the systems in the individual buildings were connected to a main fire alarm control panel via underground copper wiring, making the system highly vulnerable to lightning strikes, which occur frequently in Gulf and Bay Club’s coastal Florida location.

“They had miles of copper wiring,” Perna said. By the time the Gulf and Bay Club began shopping for a new fire system, the previous system had been struck by lightning multiple times, generating numerous service calls and thousands of dollars in damages.

An Identifiable, Reliable Solution

Fire Brigade Alarm Systems recommended the Farenhyt fire alarm system to Gulf and Bay Club in part because of the system’s ability to use fiber-optic cable rather than copper wiring for communications. Thus far, the new system has suffered none of the common transient power issues typically caused by lightning.

In addition, the new system delivers individual point identification for each of the facility’s more than 800 smoke detectors on the network, providing guards an exact location of each device in alarm. The new system also sends a “trouble signal” to the guard if anyone removes a smoke detector or tampers with other devices on the network. Now management need not be as concerned with the possibility of some unit owners jeopardizing their own fire protection.

A community like the Gulf and Bay Club can see as many as 30 or more unit owners making renovations in a year, according to Bittle, “That’s 30 potential problems in the system that can no longer happen,” he said.

The copper wiring that supported the previous fire alarm also had handled the telemetry controlling the elevator systems in the individual residential highrises. When the power goes out, the generator could power only one elevator in each high-rise. The telemetry for this operation is now being handled over the fiber-optic network, avoiding lightning issues and creating a supervised method of telemetry.

“With the Farenhyt system, we were able to combine that system into the fire alarm system,” Perna said. “Now, because the elevator and generator systems no longer rely on the copper wiring, it too is less vulnerable to lightning strikes.”

The simple addition of a smaller control panel in the guard station provides security guards an immediate means for monitoring alarms. The Gulf and Bay Club agrees having access to real-time fire alarm information as well as an historical log of events has enhanced its ability to proactively address alarm and trouble events.

The Gulf and Bay Club’s new system communicates signals to a central monitoring station over a cable modem Internet connection, using a phone line for backup. The previous system used two dedicated phone lines, which was a bit more costly on a recurring monthly basis.

When two phone lines are used for fire alarm communications, the report of a break in communications with the fire alarm system could potentially go unnoticed for as long as 24 hours because the integrity of that connection is required to be tested only once a day. By contrast, the Farenhyt system’s Internet communicator is set up to be supervised once every five minutes, thereby alerting the central station in a more timely fashion of any outages.

Extreme Expansion

Initially, the Gulf and Bay Club hired Fire Brigade Alarm Systems only to upgrade the system in the six high-rise apartment buildings. Because Bittle and her team were so happy with how the system functioned, they asked Fire Brigade to extend the system to include five additional buildings—two clubhouses, an office building, a gym and a building housing a generator and pump. Technicians are able to connect up to 16 fire alarm control panels using fiber optics, so expanding the system was no problem.

Since installation, the system has been working fine.

“We’re happy with it,” Biddle said. “We have better devices, better access to information and better control in terms of what unit contractors are doing. Now that each device has its own address, people can’t just pull it off the wall and make it go away.”

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

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