Who rules in the security vs. fire debate?

We’ve all seen movies where the bad guy trips the fire alarm, slips into a building unnoticed and steals a gigantic diamond or pile of cash. While that may oversimplify the situation, there are real issues with the integration of security and fire alarm systems – and some argue that not enough attention is being paid to the potential risks.

April 10, 2008
By Vawn Himmelsbach

Unlike an electric strike, electrified panic bar or mortise lock, a
maglock will keep doors closed from both directions. That means, within
the national building code, there are a number of regulations about
using maglocks in commercial buildings to ensure they don’t lock people
in during the event of an emergency.

During a power failure or fire alarm, all maglock doors must open,
which can create a gap in security (allowing outsiders, for example, to
gain access to high-secure areas) if exiting and locking requirements
are not carefully planned. On the other hand, electric strikes remain
locked, so there may be cases where employees become trapped in a
high-secure area such as an IT closet.

In theory, security and fire alarm systems work on the same basic
principle, says James Sanford, security consultant with Calgary-based Stebnicki +
They’re both trying to detect an event and report it to the
appropriate people. While the events are different in nature, there are
similarities between the types of detectors used. For example, motion
detectors that use infra-red or heat detection for people are similar
to infra-red heat detectors for fire. And while one might assume there
would be no technological barriers to having the systems work together,
in practice, they rarely do.

National and local building codes view fire alarm systems as pure “life
safety” systems, which are heavily regulated to ensure builders take
every reasonable precaution to keep people safe, he says.

On the other
hand, security systems are primarily viewed as systems for saving
equipment and materials. That means security is not regulated through
the building code, except where it might interfere with the “life
safety” features of the fire alarm system. “In regulatory matters, fire
alarm systems and life safety code requirements trump security in
almost every situation,” says Sanford.

A Canadian fire alarm company once tried to fully integrate a fire
alarm system with a security system at the device level using the same
controllers and software, and went so far as to install several beta
sites across the country. While in theory the two systems worked
flawlessly through the detection and reporting of fire alarm and
security events, there were a number of regulatory hurdles to overcome.

If someone wanted to make a change to the alarm system, they would have
to employ a certified fire alarm technician. “And as anyone in the
industry will know, if you are highly trained in fire alarm systems,
you probably aren’t also highly trained in security systems,” he said.
Any time they made anything other than a minor change to the alarm
system, they would have to re-verify through an engineer that the
system still met building code fire alarm regulations. As a result, the
company soon stopped promoting its integrated security system using the
fire panel as a controller.

The national fire code is part of the overall national building code,
but it’s interpreted differently province to province. “I deal with
national contracts, but in Toronto it seems to be the most emotionally
constipated process in the country,” says Gord Chizmeshya, senior
account executive of national and enterprise solutions with Intercon

Based on the fire code, electromagnetic locking devices must release on
three conditions: if there’s a standard power failure, if there’s a
fire panel power failure or if a fire alarm goes off. In any of these
scenarios, all maglocks must release, purely in the interest of life
safety and facilitating evacuation.

“Traditionally the bad guys knew that all they had to do was pull the
fire alarm and everything would drop, which would also precipitate an
evacuation, and then generally the building would be fair game,” he
says. But the latest trend, particularly since 9/11, has been to add an
electric strike in addition to a maglock in high-security areas within
the building. Those strikes are then configured so, in an emergency
situation, they remain locked and are only accessible via a master key
until power is restored.

“To some this might seem excessive, but in some circumstances this type
of application is warranted,” says Sanford, “[such as] mantraps that
are used in casinos between the gaming floor and the cash count rooms.”

If a fire alarm goes off, the maglocks may drop, but the use of
electric strikes ensures that a burglar on the outside can’t just trip
the fire alarm and then rush into the count room – yet staff can exit
without concern.

“One thing we are absolutely certain of is no fire department in North
America will budge when it comes to ensuring people can evacuate
easily, so the metrics and driving force in terms of the design and
code requirements will always put security second,” says Chizmeshya.

Many people would probably agree with that. It’s only those with a
sensitive business – a bank data centre or FBI computer server room –
that might have a different way of thinking.

“I don’t know how much of it’s driven by questionable standards in
provinces that aren’t as stringent as Ontario, but these days you have
to actually have an engineer-stamped AutoCAD drawing to submit with the
application for a maglock permit,” he says.

But any project manager will tell you, he added, that
trying to schedule reliable testing with a representative from the
building or fire department has become an issue and an expense.

Typically maglocks are installed by a security company, but the doors
are not necessarily monitored. “Because of that, if there’s an
emergency, I cannot get out, and I could die in the hallway,” says
Howard Diamond, national sales manager for Canada with Honeywell Fire
When a maglock is installed, an emergency pull station should
also be installed, which will release the door during an emergency
situation. An alarm is then sent back to the fire panel, which drops
the rest of the maglocks.

“However, on numerous occasions we’ve seen security people go in not
realizing what they should be doing and they just stick in the maglocks
and take a hike,” he says. “So there’s an issue there.” It’s now
becoming more common to see maglocks installed by fire alarm companies,
which means they’re properly installed. But retrofit installations
still cause problems, he added.

You can move up to the next level of integration, which integrates the
monitoring of fire alarm, security and access control systems on one PC
– but you cannot control the fire alarm system from that PC. Some
manufacturers claim they can provide that control. “I will tell you to
pull out a ULC document that says they can, because they cannot,” says

There are situations where doors don’t release or don’t have the proper
mechanisms to release manually, said Fred Baumgartner, president of
Firepoint Technologies Inc. “Security people are geared more toward how
these systems work to keep people out,” he says. “For the most part
they don’t have the necessary background in fire safety and really
don’t have any qualms about locking doors to compensate for theft.” So,
it becomes an issue of security versus fire safety.

“We see things such as elevator security where security will have phone
systems in the elevators, but if something happens, nine times out of
10 they don’t operate the way they should during a power failure,” he

Heightening security and locking all fire doors to keep people out is
not a good thing, he says. “The bottom line is these provisions are in
the code because people get trapped and they need to evacuate,” he
says. “We see it firsthand when we do our drills. Every building fire
alarm system in this country requires testing as part of the fire code,
and [this] truly has been falling short.”

Testing often gets overlooked because it takes a lot of time, and
property managers may not have budgeted for it. What they should be
doing, he said, is take inventory of all locking devices in the
building, come up with an inventory list (which is required by fire
code) and make this an annual event.

While complete integration of fire alarm and security systems at a
hardware device level is impractical, says Sanford, integration of
various security components can aid in the detection and reporting of
alarms — and can be valuable in detecting the difference between and
severity of those alarms.

A relay link to a smoke detector with a relay link to a CCTV camera in
the same room can automatically send an alarm to the monitoring centre,
but can also send a video signal that shows the room where the alarm is
going off, he says. This can give responders better information and
make their response more effective — a chemical fire may require extra
precautions, whereas a trash bin fire can be quickly dealt with using
fairly standard equipment.

There’s a need for property managers, security personnel and fire alarm
monitoring companies to share information, says Sanford. If security
personnel don’t know there’s been a fire panel power failure, they
won’t be able to take the necessary actions to ensure the event is
responded to properly (such as sending security staff to ensure the
front doors are not breached because the maglocks have dropped).

This doesn’t mean systems have to be integrated at the hardware device
level to be effective — it just means the person responsible for one
system must be aware of the status of other systems, or they’ll by
missing half the picture. “This integration can be achieved at a higher
systems controller level, where the regulations of the fire alarm
system do not interfere with the safe and efficient running of the
security system, but provide both sets of status information about the
two systems,” says Chizmeshya.

There will always be a conflict between the fire code and good security
practices, he says, but priority tends to fall on life safety, he
added. It takes quite a bit of discussion to blend everything into an
overall program-based solution that serves multiple stakeholders.

actually comes together very nicely in the end, but getting there tends
to be a lot of work, like pulling healthy teeth out of an angry dog,”
he says. “I’m just not sure the market’s ready and I’m just not sure
the overall program-based multi-disciplined sort of perspective is all
that entrenched.”