In advance of this month’s National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Conference and Expo, the Modern Equipment Manufacturer (MEM) sat down with Susan McKelvey, the NFPA’s Communications Manager to learn more about the Conference and the hot trends that are shaping the fire protection industry today.
During that discussion, Susan referenced new technologies – ranging from IoT sensors to Big Data and data analytics – that are helping to make firefighters safer, improve the inspection and certification of fire prevention and protection equipment and generally helping to save lives.
One of the many devices that facilities managers and building owners rely on for fire protection and prevention is their fire panel. And it should come as no surprise that fire panels could be poised for massive innovation and evolution in the near future – driven by many of the technologies that Susan discussed.
In fact, during this year’s NFPA Conference, there will be a co-located panel discussion entitled, “The Future of Fire Panels,” that will feature a number of experts from the fire protection industry and those on the front lines of firefighting. Those panelists will include:
- Bill Denney, a Suppression Application Engineer at Hochiki
- Mark Pavlica, the Director of Product Marketing at Siemens
- Tom Parrish, an inspector for the Putman Township Fire Department
- Mike McDade, a System Sales Engineer at Cosco Fire Protection
To learn more about the change that could be on the horizon for fire panels in the future, we sat down with Corey Miller, an Application Manager at Sierra Monitor Corporation, one of the sponsors of the panel discussion. During our interview, Corey talked about the benefits that the next generation fire panel will have on both the first responder and the building owner, and the regulatory restrictions that could stand in the way of a smarter, more connected fire panel.
Here is what he had to say:
MEM: What is the role of today’s fire panel and what type of information can it share with firefighters?
Corey Miller: Today’s fire panel is a very noninformational type of panel. And what I mean by that is, it has a very specific purpose – to identify that there is a safety hazard and alert emergency responders.
Today’s fire panels detect threats through any number of different sensors, including both heat and smoke detectors. And, once they detect a threat, the fire panel sends a signal to a central station through a hard-wired phone line.
What the emergency personnel on the other side receives is not very detailed and is rather limited. They’re told the location of the building where there is an emergency, and that’s about it. At least, until they can access the fire panel for additional information.
MEM: What about today’s fire panels can be improved? How can they be made better for the first responder?
Corey Miller: Let’s look at a hypothetical emergency response scenario. Let’s say that it’s 2AM and the fire department received an alarm from an apartment building.
Today, all I’m told as a firefighter is that there is a fire, and that the fire is at a particular location. I don’t know how large of a fire it is. I don’t know if there are any additional problems or challenges, such as noxious gases or flammable materials in the building. I don’t know if the building is occupied and if those people are actively in danger.
It’s difficult to prepare in advance when there is so little information available. With more data, the emergency response teams can roll with the equipment, the people and the trucks that they need to respond optimally to the situation.
Without it, they can’t really assess the situation until they get to the location and get access to the fire panel. And, even that can cause problems. What happens if the fire panel is at the back of the lobby and the lobby is on fire?
This is one area where I see massive potential for improvement in fire panels. If they were cloud-enabled and could allow remote access to some of the additional data and information that they have about an emergency situation, the response teams can come prepared and can more rapidly establish a plan for saving lives and mitigating damage to both the building and personal property.
MEM: It sounds like there are quite a few benefits to a cloud-enabled fire panel for the first responders. What about the building owner? The equipment manufacturer? Why would they want to cloud-enable fire panels?
Corey Miller: When the first responders and firefighters are called, that’s in response to a fire. It’s reactive. But what if we could be proactive? What if we could identify that there is a potential combustive situation in advance and alert the authorities before damage to the property or loss of life?
If I’m a building owner or facilities manager, that’s what I’m interested in – building automation. The ability for the fire panel to know what’s going on in the facility and predict a fire before it happens or becomes a bigger problem. Cloud-enabling the fire panel will enable the data from the panel to be monitored and managed remotely, making it possible for the warning signs of a fire to be detected sooner.
For the equipment manufacturer, cloud-enablement means the ability to more proactively repair and maintain equipment. If the warning signs are there that a sensor is failing, the manufacturer can send a repair truck to the location to fix it, before it malfunctions and causes a false alarm. Cloud-enabling the fire panel also means the ability to push software updates to the fire panel and bring new capabilities and functionality to the customer without having to rip and replace the panel.
MEM: Where is the cloud-enabled fire panel today? Will we see it in commercial and industrial buildings in the near future?
Corey Miller: When it comes to fire protection equipment, much of the change is driven by fire codes. And, fire codes are impacted by organizations such as the NFPA and local fire officials.
Every three years – including this year – the fire codes are updated and changes are made. For example, the most recent fire code changes include the requirement that the fire panel also incorporate data from gas detectors.
Right now, cloud-enabled fire panels aren’t specifically enabled or required by the fire codes, but that could change in the next three years when the new codes are released. In fact, that’s why many large fire panel companies are testing and experimenting with cloud gateways in their fire panels, so that they’re ready when the codes change.
Considering the benefits to the first responder, the benefits to the building owner and the ability to possibly prevent fires and save lives, I think it’s only a matter of time before cloud-enabled fire panels are part of the fire codes and commonplace. The companies that are experimenting and testing cloud-enabled fire panels see the writing on the wall, and are working to ensure that their products will have these technologies immediately as soon as the code warrants them.
Luckily for the companies that haven’t gotten started yet, there is a faster and easier way to cloud-enable their fire panels. Instead of building their own cloud-enabled devices, they can simply integrate cloud gateways into their existing product lines. That would ensure that they have competitive, cloud-enabled products on the market as soon as the fire codes require them.