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Fire integration 101

When it comes to integrating fire alarms with security systems, there’s still a lot of confusion about what to do, how to do it and who should be doing it. And while rules and regulations exist, there’s still a lack of awareness, which leads to problems with false alarms or – even worse – doors not releasing on alarm.

January 21, 2009  By Vawn Himmelsbach

In Ontario, anything directly connected to the fire alarm panel has to
be installed – by law – by a registered fire alarm technician. The
problem is, the security industry as a whole isn’t aware of this as a
requirement. “It’s a major issue, because all of the fire departments
across Ontario and across the country are trying to figure out how to
enforce existing legislation,” says Victor Repovz, general manager of
Centra Protection Systems in Toronto, who also sits on the board of
directors of the Canadian Fire Alarm Association.

Since 1997, the fire code in Ontario has required all fire alarm work
(involving service, maintenance or repairs) to be carried out by a
qualified fire alarm technician. Programs acceptable to the Ontario
Fire Marshal
include the Canadian Fire Alarm Association and the
Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario
. Most of the other
provinces and territories haven’t officially adopted this policy, but
unofficially they’re already doing it or moving in that direction.

The monitoring of fire alarm systems has to meet the ULC-S561-03
(Installation and Services for Fire Signal Receiving Centres and
Systems) standard. “Talk to people within the security systems
integration industry, and they’ve either never heard of it, or they’ve
heard of it but have no idea what it is,” says Repovz. This means, in
many cases, fire alarms are not being installed properly, nor are
companies following the ULC-S536-04 (Inspection and Testing of Fire
Alarm Systems) standard that requires regular inspection of fire alarm
systems. Inspection involves confirming whether the monitoring station
got the signal, and also what kind of signal they received, as well as
the sequence and timing.

Then there are the national and Ontario building codes, which stipulate
that fire alarm systems must conform to the building code, so you can’t
put in electromagnetic locks unless the fire alarm system conforms to
that requirement, which in turn means you need a building permit to do
that. “Those are the things that aren’t being done, even in some of the
larger major companies,” says Repovz. “It still seems to fall through
the cracks.” Under provincial fire codes, the authorities have
jurisdiction to fine companies that don’t follow these regulations, but
a lot of problems are never caught — or are only caught later on when
an incident occurs.


But, if there’s an incident and you’re found to be libel — the fire
alarm system wasn’t installed under a building permit or conform to any
installation standards — you’re in deep trouble. “It’s always been an
ongoing difficulty,” he says. “It’s getting to be a worse situation
than it ever was because of the lack of awareness.”

The biggest problem is making sure it’s clearly understood that, to
meet the requirements of the fire code, door security has to release on
alarm to allow people safe passage, says Alwin Friess, project
coordinator with electrical consultant Mulvey & Banani in Calgary.

The challenge is making sure the fire alarm system is installed
correctly and tested regularly. “Sometimes the security guy decides to
put an override switch in there and he’s actually overridden the door
security,” he says. “People don’t like releasing doors, but you can’t
trap people in the building.”

Over the years, he’s found that some companies put in a security system
and tie it to the fire alarm system, but never get it connected – and
never even test it. A few years ago, for example, a contractor did a
fire alarm modification in a building and the part failed, so he
rewired it, and likely rewired it to the wrong point, so it did not
release on alarm. “The tenant complained and that’s how we found it,”
says Friess. “It was never tested to ensure that it worked.” That’s why
the ULC is coming up with a commissioning standard for life safety
systems to address this issue.

During audits and fire drills, companies find out what releases and
what doesn’t. “It really gets hot, because all of a sudden people are
trying to get out somewhere and they can’t get out,” says Fred
Baumgartner, president of Firepoint Technologies in Brampton, Ont.,
which specializes in the development of fire safety plans and
evacuation procedures. “Right off the bat the flags go up.” In many
cases, Firepoint takes over the task of rewriting the company’s
original fire plan.

There have been several alarms in the GTA recently, he added, including
a situation where people were stuck for seven minutes on the floor of a
building because the doors wouldn’t release. One issue is that, as
buildings get older, new tenants move in, security systems change and
devices are added onto the system. That’s why audits are so important,
to make sure things still work the way they once did. “The key is the
floor warden training and conducting fire drills,” he says.

When a building goes into alarm, the building owner is required to
provide unimpeded access. Mag-locks, for example, have to release.

The fire alarm and security systems have to work together – they might
not be integrated, but they should be interconnected. “We don’t
integrate our fire alarm system with our access control system,” says
Glen Kitteringham, director of security and life safety with Brookfield
at the Petro-Canada Centre in Calgary, Alta. “To a certain extent
your fire alarm system is separate and standalone, because everything
attached to the fire alarm system has to be tested annually.”

To put that into perspective, if you have 1,000 devices connected to
your fire alarm system, and you add 5,000 devices from your access
control system, you now have to test 6,000 devices. That’s why devices
should be interconnected, but not necessarily integrated.

A trend for many years was to integrate all elements of a building into
a single point of communications, but that meant if you cut one line,
you cut every line. “We do have a lot of integration, but fire
integration is one we stepped back from because of that potential for
failure,” says Kitteringham. “The more you integrate, the more
susceptible you are to a single point of failure.”

Top 5 Tips for Fire Alarm Safety:

1. When designing these systems, get all the players sitting at the
table – you can’t have one single group making all the decisions. “It’s
quite complicated,” says Kitteringham. “This is critical infrastructure
– you’ve got water, sewage, gas and electricity, and they’re spread
throughout the entire building, but they’re also interacting with each
other and with software systems.”

2. Not only do you want all the players involved, it’s vital that
end-users are included in this process. “You’ve got an engineer
designing a system, but I would question if that engineer has ever been
on shift at 2 a.m. and the building goes into alarm and that person has to
start making decisions and there’s no one else around,” says

3. Keep it simple. Some systems are so complicated, even qualified
technicians are struggling to understand how they work – and that means
they’re often underutilized. There are plenty of products on the market
that keep it simple, yet work remarkably well. You can then use other
technologies to enhance the system, such as adding business analytics
to a fairly simple card access system to provide reporting capabilities.

4. Each year, get a certificate of inspection from a registered fire
alarm technician. But if you’re going to add or remove anything from
the system, you need to have that verified by a professional engineer.

5. It’s the responsibility of the builder owner to ensure the person
doing the work has a registration card stipulating he or she meets the
requirements of the provincial fire code (the company itself may be a
member of the Canadian Fire Alarm Association, but that doesn’t mean
the specific technician onsite is registered).

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