What ECs need to know and understand about school fire systems:

Schools are always working to keep their facilities as up-to-date as possible, especially relating to systems; K–12 and higher education administrators are constrained by budget, so contractors who have a visible presence in these facilities need to understand apparent nonchalance about certain systems may arise from frustration.

Jim Kimpel, product manager for Gamewell-FCI, Northford, Conn., said the overall functionality of fire alarm systems has increased, adding to their popularity and appeal. These multifaceted devices perform a variety of safety and security functions.

One example is non-fire-emergency notification. With a traditional fire alarm system, tornado notification would not be part of it, because in such a circumstance, the objective is not evacuation, but rather preparation. For example, in the event of a tornado warning, Kimpel said, building lockdown is vital. Schools may have a variety of needs and depend on fire alarm systems for specific, intelligible directions.

This is where voice evacuation comes into play. By integrating it into the overall life safety system, schools can make their traditional fire alarms more comprehensive devices that provide safety and security preparedness and readiness. Kimpel explained that integrating audible response is a logical move since voice evacuation systems can be programmed with a variety of different messages, thus providing intelligent response to myriad situations.

For example, upon fire alarm activation, a system message could explain what happened along with evacuation instructions. During a tornado, a different message could instruct building occupants to move to the basement.

Kimpel also described how the trend toward Internet protocol and video will eventually allow these enhanced systems to add even more functionality, and as such, a single facility can actively protect entire school districts over the network.

One of Gamewell-FCI’s newest offerings is a graphics package known as the network graphic annunciator. This touchscreen interface assists first responders by giving them a detailed graphic that cuts down on the time it takes to locate the source of the alarm.

Contractor’s role
According to Larry Esch, president of World Security and Control Inc. and a Silent Knight engineered systems distributor, one of the lingering issues in schools is that some do the minimum to meet code requirements. He also mentioned that schools do not want their fire alarm systems to be a nuisance, such as causing false alarms and malfunctioning when there is a real emergency.

“They want a fire alarm system they do not hear from unless there is an emergency, and then it needs to work,” Esch said.

He said that because of the ambivalent relationship between schools and fire alarms, contractors should be careful. Typically, when schools do not get the level of service they expect, they start looking elsewhere for service and support.

“They are not just ‘install and walk away’ projects. You need to be able to stay and service them,” Esch said.

He also said contractors can help in servicing by ensuring the system is installed correctly. Installers and project managers need a working knowledge of the National Electrical Code; NFPA 70, The National Fire Alarm Code; NFPA 72; and applicable building codes. Of course, the local authority having jurisdiction must be consulted for specifics and has the final word.

Installing, servicing or maintaining fire alarms in a school setting also requires a different mentality.

“Approach fire alarm projects with the understanding that if you are going to do this type of work, you need to be prepared to service it yourself or have someone qualified to do so,” Esch said.

Fire alarm systems do more than simply signal an alarm. They provide voice instructions and specifics of which areas may be safer than others.

“You need to think beyond the fire alarm,” Kimpel said.

By incorporating multiple functions into a single system, schools can better protect their buildings and their occupants.

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached via e-mail at JenLeahS@msn.com.