Whether mandated by new codes or facilitated by a keen interest in life safety as a result of recent news events, fire alarms continue to rise to the occasion with intelligence and advanced capabilities. Addressable or intelligent systems can be tied to specific zones, sensors or areas of the premises.

They can also be tied to supervision, maintenance, actual alarms and alerts sent to graphic user interfaces on computers, personal digital assistants or laptops. Facilities managers and security supervisors can also be notified of incidents directly by cellular phones, pagers or other wireless devices.

Conventional fire alarm panels are certainly not dead-interest continues in having the simple, yet highly effective, devices deployed in smaller facilities or locations where pinpointing individual sensors or addresses is not necessary. They are perfect and highly reliable and nearly maintenance-free for a small square-footage location and manufacturers continue to make them as robust as possible.

Nick Martello, director of Marketing, Fire-Lite Alarms-part of the Honeywell Life Safety Group, Northford, Conn.-said there is still a need for conventional hardwired panels. But much of the recent innovation in fire alarm systems, he said, focuses on both audible voice annunciation and advanced addressable systems. Some authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) now mandate audio evacuation systems in certain protected premises and places of assembly with more than 300 occupants.

“These types of systems provide clear voice commands of preprogrammed messages that give evacuees instructions where to exit,” said Martello. “You can move people from certain areas-called intelligent evacuation-while keeping occupants in other parts, depending on the situation and the threat assessment.”

Previously found only in sophisticated high-rise voice evacuation systems, new features in the distributed audio and zone splitter panels from Fire-Lite (ACC-25/50 and ACC-25/50ZS) provide more than 1,500W of audio and allow the connection of up to 24 separate audio circuits for smaller facilities.

The zone-splitter capability allows the system to be configured; therefore, fire fighters would be able to page into specific zones and provide explicit instructions on how to safely exit a building.

Manufacturers are also using innovation to add appeal and flexibility to fire alarm systems. GE Infrastructure Security began offering a hybrid intelligent/conventional fire alarm control panel, called QuickStart, that allows installers to retrofit intelligent or addressable devices in a newly renovated part of a building, while conventional detectors remain operational in a yet-to-be upgraded area.

“Because the same panel can receive input from both kinds of devices, the transition from conventional to intelligent control can be staged to suit the needs of the building owner and occupants,” said Mike Browning, director of Business Development for Fire and Life Safety, GE Infrastructure Security, Bradenton, Fla.

He concurred that conventional technology in the past maintained a foothold among smaller fire applications.

“Conventional panels and devices tended to be less expensive and easier to install than their intelligent, addressable counterpart. GE has bucked that trend by developing a low-cost entry level fire alarm panel that offers a clear migration path to intelligent control,” Browning said.

The need to save on labor has driven new fire alarm system features as well. Rather than installing what is referred to in the industry as fire alarm cabling, standard wiring can now be used with some products on the market.

“Standard wiring helps reduce costs and overhead on new installations and greatly speeds retrofit jobs where cable has already been run for an existing system. This means users can upgrade an older conventional fire alarm system,” said Jeff Hendrickson, director of Marketing, Maple Grove, Minn.

Power also plays an important role in fire alarm systems and new and emerging life safety applications, said Gene Pecora, general manager, Honeywell Power Products, Fire Systems Group, Northford, Conn. New capabilities require higher and multiple outputs and are critical to the integrity of security, and especially, life safety applications, he added.

“Fire alarm power supplies are capable of connecting to most brands of UL-listed fire alarm control panels to offer notification appliance circuit (NAC) expansion,” Pecora said. “We've found features preferred by installers include 6-, 8- or 9-amp 24V DC operation, supervised inputs and multiple NAC outputs with strobe synchronization protocols built in.”

Intelligent, flexible, user-friendly intuitive control continues at the forefront of fire alarm innovation. Fire alarm systems incorporate new technology and microprocessor controls to give them the ability to pinpoint, with accuracy, the location of a problem detector, or more importantly, a fire in progress. EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@earthlink.net.