FM Issue: Safeguarding Fire Systems

(Credit: Comstock/
(Credit: Comstock/

By Steve Snedegar
Published in the March 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

When it comes to the operation and maintenance of fire and life safety systems, advanced web-based technologies have emerged that can be put to use today to help facility managers (fms) fulfill their responsibilities as effectively and efficiently as possible.

In all types of facilities and environments, the trend toward embedding more intelligence and capability into fire and life safety systems can improve the protection of life and property and provide added value for fms. While an array of innovative Internet-based technologies are available, notably useful applications include remote diagnostics capabilities for fire alarm systems, automated system inspection and associated reporting via a web portal, and electronic monitoring of fire extinguishers. The potential benefits to fms from these technologies can include:

  • enhancing life safety protection for facility occupants;
  • simplifying the inspection, testing, and maintenance process as well as related documentation and reporting;
  • improving a facility’s operational efficiency;
  • reducing or eliminating nuisance or unwanted alarms that result from a lack of system maintenance;
  • increasing business continuity;
  • lowering overall life cycle costs;
  • supporting compliance with applicable codes and standards; and
  • helping to manage risk.

Remote Diagnostics

The past few years have brought to the industry the introduction and refinement of remote diagnostics for fire alarm systems. This intelligent technology enables a life safety provider to watch a facility’s fire alarm system electronically, on an ongoing basis. The resulting benefits for fms are safer environments, together with simplification, efficiency, operational continuity, and an improved service experience.

Using remote diagnostics, a provider can proactively notify an fm or designated team member when there is a trouble condition on the fire alarm system. By employing knowledgeable remote technicians, a service provider can diagnose the problem from off-site and determine if a site visit will be necessary. If a service call is needed, the responding technician arrives at the facility with an upfront understanding of the problem, the appropriate solution, and the parts required to fix it on the first visit. Life safety providers that employ this technology and approach in their service operations report that first time fix rates for system problems are as high as 90%.

Over the course of time, remote diagnostics can produce considerable cost savings, added operational efficiency, and improved immunity to nuisance alarms. An example of the potential benefit to fms can be found in a service company’s ability to provide predictive fire alarm service for smoke detectors. Remote diagnostics technology enables a provider to identify smoke detectors that are “almost dirty.” If not cleaned in the near term, these detectors will eventually reach a “dirty” stage and produce one or more trouble or false alarms in a facility’s fire alarm control unit.

By using remote diagnostics to identify “almost dirty” detectors in advance, a service provider helps fms avoid costly, time-consuming nuisance alarms. Armed with the diagnostic information, a practical schedule of site visits can be arranged to clean detectors in a timely, unobtrusive manner. For fms who handle detector cleaning with in-house staff, the life safety company can provide the diagnostic information to help with that maintenance process.

Automated Inspection And Reporting

Conducting timely inspections of life safety systems and properly documenting the results in inspection reports are vital elements of any comprehensive life safety strategy. Available technology makes it possible for service providers to automate a portion of the inspection process. The automation is achieved by having technicians use handheld, electronic devices that read barcoded information on system devices and components. Providers using this technology can conduct inspections quickly and efficiently. Technicians are able to capture inspection information using the electronic barcoding and tools, and inspection results can be gathered, tracked, and reported electronically, via a web portal.

Moreover, this type of system inspection work has typically required two people—one person at the fire alarm control unit and another activating devices throughout the system. Equipped with a handheld smart device, a single technician can connect wirelessly to the system, view information from the fire alarm control unit remotely, and reset the panel without being in front of it.

This advancement is in keeping with changes that have been made in the inspection, testing, and maintenance chapter of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. That chapter (Chapter 14) was recently revised to allow for automated testing of fire alarm and signaling systems. Similar changes acknowledging automated testing have also been made recently to NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems.

This automation also enables faster reporting and better documentation of system component health status, history, and compliance. These types of tools can also provide an efficient online means for fms to mine their own data to develop customized reports and detect important trends. The trend data can help benchmark how well an organization is performing and identify areas for improvement. The information can also be used to track and assess vendor performance over time.

These automated capabilities can help support an fm’s efforts to comply with NFPA requirements and other applicable standards, such as The Joint Commission inspection and documentation requirements for accreditation of healthcare institutions. All of the inspection information can be automatically aggregated and compiled into a report that is e-mailed to pre-designated recipients and available 24/7 via a customer web portal.

Fire Extinguisher Monitoring

Meanwhile, fms can benefit from the emergence of electronic monitoring of fire extinguishers. This technology enables the fire alarm control unit to monitor extinguishers constantly for pressure, removal, or obstruction. A signal is transmitted to the control unit if an extinguisher is removed from its mounting, or if obstructions are present that might impede visibility or access to the device during an emergency. This means system operators will know if fire extinguisher pressure is low, if an extinguisher is pulled from its location for emergency purposes or in an act of vandalism, or if an extinguisher is blocked or otherwise inaccessible.

There are electronic monitoring solutions that are UL listed and code compliant. In addition to helping reduce tampering and vandalism, an electronic solution can simplify the inspection process for fire extinguishers. NFPA 10: Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers was recently amended to allow required monthly inspections to be performed by means of an electronic monitoring device or system. This means an electronic extinguisher monitoring solution can save time and money for fms by eliminating the need for a manual inspection of all extinguishers every 30 days. (A manual inspection is still required for each extinguisher on an annual basis.)

Beyond the potential labor savings and operational benefits, electronic monitoring of fire extinguishers can enhance fire protection. Extinguisher monitoring technology can make a difference in helping to protect life and property. In 2008, a welding ignited fire on the roof of the Monte Carlo Casino in Las Vegas, NV cost nearly $100 million in damage and lost business for owner, MGM Mirage. Upwards of 10 Monte Carlo owned extinguishers were pulled to fight the blaze before the fire progressed to the point of setting off alarms inside the building. According to a Monte Carlo official, “Had the extinguishers been electronically monitored, we would have known about the fire 10 to 12 minutes sooner.”l

In 2007, intelligent fire system monitoring alerted authorities that an extinguisher had been removed in response to a car fire in a remote airport parking garage in Austin, TX. The alert enabled the dispatcher to notify the fire department immediately.2

Improving Upon Existing Systems

Emerging intelligent fire and life safety system technologies for remote diagnostics, automated inspection and reporting, and electronic extinguisher monitoring can enhance how fms oversee their fire and life safety systems. At the heart of these developments is the ability to gather, process, document, and, when necessary, act on information. Web-based solutions can simplify life safety and property protection operations, improve efficiency, support code compliance, and reduce total cost of ownership. Fms can evaluate these developments and consider incorporating them into their operations, practices, and programs.


Snedegar is director of service marketing at SimplexGrinnell (, a Tyco business based in Westminster, MA. He has many years of experience in the life safety and elevator industries.

1 Las Vegas Review-Journal; 2008;
2 Society of Fire Protection Engineers presentation; “Using New Technology To Enhance ‘Old’ Technology”;