Safety and security are sister installations in the integrated systems model, and they differ sharply from the other three major elements—power, controls and communications—because safety and security have become two of the most high-visibility and critical issues in our daily lives in the past decade.
Since 9/11, safety measures have morphed from a troublesome matter of practicality to a heightened daily awareness fed by the relentless barrage of headlines chronicling violent disasters on every level from foreign countries to the local school district. In fact, these measures played a large part in quickly identifying suspects in the recent Boston Marathon bombings, leading to a massive and well-publicized manhunt.
For the electrical contractor (EC), this means taking a closer look at this aspect of systems integration work, which has the potential for significant growth.
“Percentage-wise, the safety and security segments of the average complete systems integration package have grown dramatically over the past few years,” said Mark Herman, a product manager at national distributor Graybar, St. Louis. “When you consider that some of the recent tragedies have affected schools and other public places, people are going to want enhanced safety and security control, and we believe this demand will most likely continue to grow.”
In fact, the “2012 Profile of the Electrical Contractor” stated that a significantly higher percentage of ECs reported working on both residential and commercial/industrial/institutional safety systems. However, that same survey also indicated that only four out of 10 contractors are involved in systems integration work (Electrical Contractor, July 2012).
But despite the increased public awareness of safety issues, there is still a lag in actual installation of safety systems, meaning contractors not yet actively involved still have a window of opportunity to get up to speed and to participate—in both systems integration generally and safety work in particular.
“The contractor who is going to survive this economy has to expand his capabilities and business to include the disciplines, such as safety, that make up integrated systems,” said Frank Bisbee, president of Communication Planning Corp., Jacksonville, Fla., and editor of “Heard on the Street,” a syndicated monthly column. “And obviously, working on integrated systems makes installation expertise inescapable. Contractors need to become familiar with the technology and who the major suppliers of products are.”
As in the case of other specialized market sectors, some ECs are reluctant to make a commitment, but that is gradually changing.
“Electrical contractors’ awareness level of the importance of the safety/security elements of systems integration is growing, similar to the way that installation work expanded beyond strictly electrical to include communications and data,” said Graybar’s Herman.
But the cause of hesitation is why the life safety market hasn’t grown faster, a matter of speculation throughout the industry.
“Cost is one factor, and people have a tendency to rationalize that, ‘This kind of thing won’t happen to me’,” said Brad Weir, president of Kelso-Burnett Co., Rolling Meadows, Ill. “And, on the construction side, the players tend to do things the way they always did—the architects come up with a plan, and the engineers do their calculations. Yet, despite the fact that manufacturers have introduced products with increased capacity for safety measures, enhanced safety installation usually only takes place if the end-user pushes for it because he feels pressured by an incident in his geographic proximity.”
Weir speaks from experience because, in the last few years, there were a number of fires in Chicago-area high-rise buildings that involved loss of life.
“This series of events drew public attention to the number of older structures whose safety systems had been grandfathered over the years and lacked the efficiency of today’s integrated buildings,” he said. “So, an ordinance was passed that any building over 80 feet had to have fire alarm paging systems, which has kept contractors busy.”
“In addition, the city established a point system with which buildings have to comply, involving safety installations such as elevator recall, smoke detectors, and fire-rated doors and walls. This is a huge undertaking, and it will be difficult for contractors to keep up with the demand for these upgrade installations,” Weir said.
So the work is there, the volume is also, depending on market circumstances, but the EC has to be ready to seize the opportunity when it arises.
With regard to new construction, Weir cautions contractors to be aware of not only different codes, but also adapting the code stipulations to the realities on the job site.
“Many safety codes are municipal and do not appear in the [National Electrical Code],” he said, “and this often requires using a good dose of common sense. For example, when you’re installing speakers or alarms in a building, a certain decibel level is specified, but you have to be aware of where the doors are so that the decibel level will be maintained. The overall installation has to be considered as much as the rule itself.
“Another problem can arise when a contractor submits a life safety drawing to the city and it’s approved, but after it’s installed, the fire marshal does a walk-through and stipulates various additions. So the contractor should raise any potential issues with the authorities up front before moving to installation.”
Most important, the EC has to keep the comprehensive, integrated picture foremost in his mind.
“Systems integration can include structured cabling networks, both wireless applications and distributed antenna systems,” Herman said. “The practical question is, ‘What does the end-user want to do with these networks?’ In terms of safety and security, this involves everything from video monitoring to fire alarm and smoke detection as well as intrusion alert and access control systems. And the network can encompass other systems that usually might not be thought of as directly involving safety, such as lighting controls.”
In addition, contractors should not think of the safety/security market as strictly commercial; there are new advanced systems solutions in the residential sector as well. Life safety applications now often include carbon monoxide monitoring, multiple-means intrusion alert, panic buttons and instant-call buttons to summon emergency assistance, to name a few.
Safety and the bottom line
There are two other critical aspects of systems integration and life safety systems that deserve the EC’s attention: both continue to evolve, and both require substantial post-installation service.
“Perhaps the biggest change on the installation scene is that safety systems have become more compact, more multifunctional, and do not require as complex an array of equipment and components as in the past,” Herman said. “Microtechnology has enabled manufacturers to develop much more capable systems in a smaller package, often wireless, which makes installation quicker, easier and more efficient.”
The question of service of these systems is more clear-cut and pragmatic.
“One significant difference between integrated systems work and traditional project work is the need for ongoing service,” Bisbee said. “This service work usually has a higher profit margin and becomes a long-term revenue stream for the contractor. Integrated systems have created a marketing package combining installation with maintenance.”
Taken together, the evolution of the systems and the service issue lead straight to the EC’s bottom line.
The need for enhanced safety and security will only increase, given the nature of events the public witnesses on an ongoing basis. Manufacturers have the products and systems available, and industry observers anticipate an inevitable move toward more widespread installation.
“Electrical contractors are becoming more and more sophisticated in terms of their capabilities and how they address the more demanding requirements of their customers,” Herman said. “Those who have not yet become seriously involved in safety installation should realize that this technology doesn’t represent a quantum leap in expertise. There are plenty of training programs available and they should understand there is a lot of room for growth in this continually evolving market.”