During last month’s National Fire Protection Association Annual Conference in San Antonio, a number of government and industry experts participated in a panel discussion about the recent innovations in fire panel technology. The panel discussion, which was entitled, “The Future of the Fire Panel,” featured:
- 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
During the panel discussion, the participants debated a number of hot topics – ranging from the anticipated changes in fire alarms and mass notifications, to the evolution of smart buildings and the role that the fire panel will play in them. But one topic that really intrigued many in attendance was the potential of remotely monitoring and servicing fire panels.
The fire panel is the brain of a building or facility’s entire fire protection system. It notifies first responders and emergency personnel to a fire or other emergency in the building. It sounds alarms and notified occupants of a problem and need to evacuate. It also gives emergency personnel important information about the situation they’re entering when they arrive on site.
With fire panels responsible for so many important functions, a fire panel malfunction could be catastrophic. Should an emergency occur while a fire panel is disabled or malfunctioning, lives could very well be lost. This means that identifying problems with fire panels early and working to proactively service them is paramount since it could help increase up time – and that’s what remote monitoring and remote servicing could enable.
There is a new trend in commercial and industrial equipment that involves manufacturers making their devices more connected and even cloud-enabled. By cloud-enabling these devices, the manufacturers can gather information from them from any location. This enables the manufacturer to monitor their devices in real time.
There is no better expert on a piece of commercial or industrial equipment than the manufacturer. They made the device, so they know it inside and out.
Many manufacturers know the red flags that often present prior to large problems occurring and devices breaking. By gathering operational data from their devices in the field, manufacturers can learn even more about the warning signs of problems, and then begin to monitor their deployed devices for these problems.
This can enable them to almost become proactive in their service and maintenance of their devices. It can also enable them to send better prepared and equipped service personnel, since they know the problem before ever interacting with the device.
All of this could apply to fire panels – and would be a huge step up from what servicing fire panels is like today. According to the panel’s moderator, Corey Miller of Sierra Monitor, “Today, on the older panels, all that I get is a trouble indication and the only way that I know more about it is to roll to that panel and find out.”
By cloud-enabling fire panels and enabling them to distribute operational data to the manufacturer, fire panel problems can be identified more quickly. Then, better equipped service personnel can be dispatched to fix them, a process that Mike McDade of Cosco Fire Protection noted would, ”…speed up the process and get the right technician out.”
Of all of the industrial and commercial devices that can be cloud-enabled, the fire panel could be the most important, since expediting repairs and “speeding up the process” could effectively save lives. So, why aren’t all fire panels cloud-enabled?
Code restrictions couched in legitimate concerns
As is often the case with fire protection technologies, there are restrictions and regulations that are holding back innovation in the fire panel. As Corey Miller noted, “The restriction isn’t in the innovation – the restriction isn’t in the technology – it’s in the code that we write. We limit ourselves if we’re afraid to open it up.”
But there are some very real concerns that are holding the fire prevention industry from embracing the remote access, remote monitoring and remote management of fire panels. Namely, there are concerns that alarms and problems will be turned off and disabled remotely without anyone on the ground to confirm that it was a false alarm.
This concern was explained by Mike McDade who said, “There’s nothing in the code that says you can’t send information anywhere you want. But you need to be careful about what you’re sending and what you expect people to do with that [information]. It’s one thing to identify a trouble in a building, it’s another thing to disable a problem from the comfort of your office.”
The idea of an alarm being shut off remotely while a real fire burns in a building is certainly enough to give the fire protection experts that write fire codes pause. However, it’s abundantly clear that enabling some functionality and capability in the areas of remote monitoring and remote servicing of fire panels could help to increase uptime and ensure they’re functioning when they’re needed. Hopefully a compromise can be reached that allows manufacturers to innovate a cloud-enabled panel that can be more proactively serviced and maintained, while assuaging fears of firy debacles caused by remotely-disabled alerts.
In subsequent posts on the Modern Equipment Manufacturer, we’ll look at other topics covered in the panel discussion, including the role smarter fire panels could play in smart buildings. To see the rest of the panel discussion in its entirety, click play on the video below.