Three Considerations To Effectively Vet Commercial Fire Detection Technology

Whether creating a fire safety plan for the first time or revisiting it after a few years, here are some important factors to keep in mind when choosing a fire detection system.

By Dr. Rodger Reiswig


While the average person may consider fire alarms to be relatively straightforward or limited in scope, commercial real estate (CRE) owners, facility executives, and life safety contractors know there’s more to fire detection systems than meets the eye. This is especially true as continued innovation in fire safety solutions has led to a growing number of vendors, features and advanced capabilities on the market.

Today’s facility managers need to understand how to vet fire detection technology based on their unique needs as part of a well-crafted fire safety plan. After all, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to protect occupants and spaces from fires or other environmental hazards like carbon monoxide, especially in the commercial sector. Whether creating a fire safety plan for the first time or revisiting it after a few years, here are three important factors to keep in mind.

Commercial Fire Detection Technology
There’s no one-size-fits-all to fire detection; each solution must be applicable to a building’s size and unique needs. (Source: Johnson Controls)

Building Details

The type of building, as well as its size and layout, matters when deciding on a fire detection system. For example, hospitals, schools and office buildings will all need to approach fire safety slightly differently based on their occupant demographics and how the space is being used. Managers need to account for how compact or sprawling their facility is, how many rooms or stories there are, and any unique fire risks posed by the building’s function or structure.

Since smaller properties have less square footage to protect, facility managers may opt for conventional fire detection solutions, with control units that show which region or “zone” in the building a fire alarm activates within so they can respond quickly. On the other hand, medium to large facilities typically require addressable control units that provide more precise insights — pinpointing the exact device that’s activated, versus the general region. All of the devices in an addressable system are interconnected and can interact with each other and the supervising station location.

Features And Applications

Commercial properties need fire detection systems that are reliable, scalable, and include the latest and greatest features. On a very basic level, conventional and addressable control units will have a notification appliance circuit (NAC) that uses strobe lights, horns, speakers or other appliances to alert occupants in the event of a fire. There should also be a Transmitter, which serves the purpose of alerting monitoring stations — and, by extension, dispatchers or first responders — when a fire alarm system is activated. Most systems will also support annunciators, visual display units separate from the main control unit, that help facility managers and occupants quickly see the building’s fire safety status and, if authorized, interact with the system.

Commercial properties need fire detection systems that are reliable, scalable, and include the latest and greatest features.

While a working knowledge of these primary features is important, facility managers will need to decide which product tier best fits their needs, factoring in the size and scope of their building, customization needs, and their preferences around access and configurability of the system. For example, smaller buildings may only need a conventional control unit with four zones and one NAC, while a larger building might need hundreds of addressable devices, multiple NACs and annunciators and the ability to configure the system from different devices, like the control unit’s interface, PC or mobile device.

Depending on their needs, facility managers may want to customize their system even further than what’s included in various product tiers. For this reason, it makes sense to choose a vendor that offers a wide range of peripheral devices that enhance the functionality of the main system, including additional annunciators or NACs, or components like sensors, bases or manual pull stations.

Training And Ease Of Use

Additionally, it’s essential to consider how easy the fire detection system will be to install, use, and maintain. Many systems that offer advanced functionality are also complicated to implement, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Facility managers or contractors should seek systems that provide exceptional quality while still being simple to use. They need to evaluate how technicians will learn their way around the system and how much it will cost to train them. For instance, will technicians need to travel to attend onsite, classroom training or will they be able to familiarize themselves with the system virtually from anywhere, at any time? Installers, technicians, and electricians are busier than ever, so the more intuitive the system is to install, program and troubleshoot, the better. This holds true for how easy the system is to understand for the end users as well, including the facility management team and occupants.

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There’s a lot riding on selecting the right fire detection and notification system. Not only does the technology need to offer comprehensive coverage of every nook and cranny of their space, but it also needs to have the appropriate features to alert occupants, monitor status of fires, and accurately locate the fire so managers can respond quickly. Finally, the system needs to have advanced functionality and customizability, while still being intuitive for contractors and technicians to program and maintain. By vetting fire alarms – and their sister technology, fire suppression systems – using these criteria, facility managers can be highly confident in their fire prevention plan.

Commercial Fire Detection TechnologyDr. Rodger Reiswig has been employed with Johnson Controls for over 37 years and currently is Fellow and Vice President, Industry Relations. Rodger represents Johnson Controls worldwide and is able to devote his time to representing Johnson Controls on various codes and standards committees as well as serving on various association and organization boards and committees, including NFPA’s Standards Council and over 26 NFPA Technical Committees.

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