The Facility Technologist: Danger Ahead

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
From the June 2004 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Technologies that enhance life safety in facilities have come under scrutiny. While this area is not particularly glamorous or glitzy (at least not in the high tech world), there are some significant advances in this area that are incredibly important to facility professionals. A careful examination of these technologies should help those in the field understand the far reaching implications of these innovations.

Inspection And Maintenance. According to statistics, there is at least one malfunctioning life safety component in every facility. This is no reflection on the competence of the facilities management team, it is merely a fact. And no matter how many times the system is inspected, some device or component will fail between checks. The challenge then is to perform inspections effectively without spending every moment doing it. There have been many approaches to this important responsibility, but there are few solutions that focus specifically on life safety equipment inspections.

ATG is one company with a solution tailored for this purpose. The company’s Life Safety Inspectorª system uses handheld devices that are carried by building maintenance staff during inspections. These devices have built-in bar code scanners for reading equipment tags and automatically recording the date and time of the inspection. If an inspector sees that a piece of equipment requires attention, he or she can enter that data into the device as well. When the inspector returns to the office, the device is placed in a docking cradle which uploads and syncs all data; it even creates work orders for equipment that needs attention.


The system is fully integrated with ATG’s CAFM and other modules. It is used for life safety maintenance at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital and other hospitals around the country.

Smoke Detector Check Up. Early warning smoke detectors can sense minute amounts of smoke and can trigger an alarm far in advance of a normal unit. Because of their sensitivity, these devices are used in many facilities not to trigger the main fire alarm, but to trigger an alarm at the maintenance office. This allows personnel to investigate if the situation is the beginning of a fire. While these systems have been traditionally used in data centers and other specialized areas, they are coming down in price and becoming far more widespread.

One smoke detection area that is frequently missed is the inside of HVAC ducts. Because the HVAC system is connected to every part of the facility, smoke travels quickly inside ductwork, making it an ideal place for smoke detection.

Locking In Danger. Tragedies can easily be avoided by linking fire alarm systems to access control systems. Fire alarm systems have output relays that can be connected to an access control system. If stairwell doors do not already have electric strikes, installation of cabling and power for a traditional electric strike system may be cost-prohibitive. If this is the case, consider installing a wireless system. This is proven technology with amazingly long range, secure, radio transmissions that are extremely interference resistant. These systems are also great for elevators, remote buildings, parking lots, or any other place where wiring is impractical or too expensive.

No Exit. High rise buildings can be extremely difficult to exit during an emergency. Several new technologies are tackling this problem. The ResQline system controls the descent of a human being on a cable on the outside of a building. It uses fan blades that are slowed by the air to limit the speed of a descending person, no matter what the weight. For those who are a little more daring, how about a parachute? Small, lightweight, single-use parachutes like the Executive Chute work from as low as 125′ and are small enough to be easily stored in a desk drawer. These are a little pricey, but they could be one way out of an otherwise impossible situation.

Another solution is the descent chute, a tubular fabric that runs from the ground floor to the top of a building. This device allows people to slide down inside the fabric, which slows their descent. These are manufactured in both interior and exterior models. The life safety story may initially seem mundane, but it contains several important chapters. Next month, this column will examine a new technology that is the most significant advance in emergency exit systems since the invention of the illuminated exit sign. Stay tuned!