Convergence in Fire Alarm, IP Technology Has Arrived
For almost a decade, the security industry has been using the term “convergence” to describe the merging spheres of physical security and IT infrastructure and systems. The fire alarm industry has until recently remained relatively untouched by convergence.
Code changes to the 2007 National Fire Protection Association National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72) have addressed this issue, and manufacturers are beginning to introduce products that can comply with NFPA 72’s alternative means of communication.
In the last 20+ years the primary means of communicating the status of a fire alarm system to a receiving station has been a POTS (plain old telephone system) line with the following approved means for secondary notification:
• A second phone line
• A cellular telephone connection
• A one-way radio system
• A one-way private radio alarm system
• A private microwave radio system
• A two-way RF multiplex system
The de facto standard in much of the U.S. has been to use POTS lines for both primary and secondary notification. In many jurisdictions this has come to mean two “dedicated” POTS lines.
There has been ample confusion about whether the lines need to be dedicated. NFPA 72 basically makes the following requirements.
1. The lines are under the control of the subscriber.
2. The fire alarm system has the ability to seize the POTS line ahead of other functions on the line.
3. Dial tone is immediately available when going off-hook.
A good example of whether the lines should be dedicated is found in a multi-tenant building application.
In the first variation of the example, the owner of the building has a management office in the building, and they have two POTS lines for voice and fax service, thus the lines are under the control of the subscriber. These two lines can be used for fire system communications as shown in Illustration #1 and where the lines are configured to meet requirements #2 and #3 above.
Illustration #1: Standard 2-Line POTS/DACT Configuration
In the second variation of the example, the building owner does not have offices in the subject property, and the building owner is furnishing the monitoring of the fire alarm system. In this case, two dedicated POTS lines would be required for the system monitoring.
There are a myriad of possible variances to the above examples and the requirements of the AHJ must be factored in as well.
IP Fire Communicators:
Section 8.6.4 in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 72 – 2007 allows for “Other Transmission Technologies”. Many of the fire alarm manufacturers are now beginning to offer internet protocol (IP) communicators that are listed to the requirements found in 8.6.4. Initial versions of the IP “communicators” had a requirement that a POTS line be associated as the secondary means of communication to the receiving station. The latest versions now operate as an IP only device.
A primary concern about an IP communicator, with no other alternative communication path, is that while they will be designed to have a battery backup for 24-hours or more, how can it be ensured that the data equipment upstream, i.e. switches, routers, and gateways up to the demark, have the same level of emergency backup? UPS cost for all data switch locations and the ISP equipment can be expensive both for initial cost and ongoing maintenance.
In a long power outage, if the data equipment does not have 24-hours or longer of emergency power to the IT equipment, it cannot be ensured that a fire signal will be transmitted to the Central Station when primary power is interrupted. During the primary power outage, if properly installed, the system will notify the owner at the site with a trouble signal and the receiving station will call to notify the system owner of the drop in service.
There are some practical steps that can be incorporated to help minimize this issue and the risk to the monitoring provider:
1. Minimize the number of data connection points in the circuit. If possible, connect directly to the router/gateway.
2. Install the IT components in a locked room, cabinet, or enclosure to ensure that someone trying to obtain a spare data port doesn’t simply unplug the connection.
3. Modify the monitoring contract so that it states effectively that if the client doesn’t have emergency power for those data components, that the monitoring provider is indemnified against loss of signal due to the power loss.
An alternative is to use an IP/Global System Mobile Communication (GSM) dialer which can allow the IP communicator as the primary path and use the GSM as the alternative path when IP communication is not available. This can be more like a traditional slave communicator that would monitor alarm, supervisory & trouble conditions, unless the manufacturer offers a model that provides ContactID, thus giving point identification at the receiving station. To obtain a UL Commercial Fire Listing you must use all of the required components.
Another consideration is the availability of IP connectivity at the time of system commissioning and acceptance by the AHJ. It has been difficult enough to have two POTS line available at the time of AHJ’s acceptance testing, now a level of complexity is being added that requires a greater degree of coordination to ensure that the ISP and the associated infrastructure is ready when needed.
When the building is not owner occupied, the owner will have to furnish the IP connectivity, but often there are other systems such as building controls, elevator controls, and lighting controls which often can make use of the IP connection for remote programming and diagnostics.
There are two significant benefits to the use of IP communicators:
1. Reduction in operating costs
2. Remote diagnostics
Simply put the use of IP communicators can save the system owner significant expense, especially when they have multiple sites that require monitoring.
Under this example, the investment capital is paid back from the operating budget, which means a recovery time of just over a year. It is quite powerful for schools and other entities to be able to use their operational budget to acquire in one year of capital that literally eliminates the operational costs the next year.
Figure 1: IP Communicator ROI
So, the basic math is this; spend $400 over the annual operating costs for the phone lines to save $9,600 in each year following the upgrade. That is not new math; it is easy math for any school or entity that is looking to create savings in its operating budget.
When the IP communicator is integrated into the FACP and it has a native web server associated with it, true remote diagnostics become available to the system owner. While this is difficult to quantify, there can be potential savings on service calls to the owner if basic trouble conditions can be determined remotely and the owner instructed in basic measures to rectify the issue. This has an opportunity gain for the system integrator, as they can charge for the service consultation, but not have a technician tied up for drive time, especially to remote locations or across highly congested traffic areas.
When using remote diagnostics, there may have to be a higher degree of coordination for allowing the systems service provider access through firewalls, and to ensure that an open door is not left into other aspects of the owner’s IT system.
The Demise of POTS:
While not yet date verified, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has begun the discussion to determine when POTS will no longer be a valid form of communication in the U.S. Some dates have been as early as 2014 in recent media reports.
With new construction in some service areas, it is becoming more difficult to have POTS line installed. With the proliferation of VOIP for standard business phone use, the handwriting is on the wall, POTS will end in the foreseeable future.
IP Fire Communicators will save the system owner money by sparing them the costs of the POTS lines and by potential savings in service calls. There is an advantage to the system service provider in that they can be more responsive and flexible in their ability to remotely diagnose system issues for the owner.
This will not be without its issues for the fire systems service provider. They will be required to have a higher degree of coordination to ensure the IP service is available when needed for acceptance testing. These providers will need to increase their level of understanding of IT issues pertaining to firewall security and practices and to ensure that the remote connection is secure from tampering. Finally, they will need to be conversant in working with the owner to determine the level of power backup required for the IT components.
While there is a learning curve required for owners and systems providers, ultimately IP Fire Communicators will be a win/win for all parties.
About the Author:
Dave Miller, SET is a Principal with and leads the Fire/Life Safety practice for True System Designers, Ltd. (www.trusys.com). Dave has over 20 years of experience in a wide variety of fire/life safety applications, and provides NICET Fire Alarm exam preparation course throughout the U.S. He is a regular contributor to the TRUSYS Institute. TRUSYS is a leader in the consulting fields of Organizational Resilience, Security and Fire/Life Safety. Dave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503.537.9200.