Inhospitable Fire Alarm Environments

By Wayne D. Moore | Oct 15, 2008
01_Fire Focus1.jpg




You’re reading an outdated article. Please go to the recent issues to find up-to-date content.

Hospitality venues, such as casinos, resorts and gaming facilities, present interesting challenges to contractors that provide life safety and security systems. The owner’s fire protection and security goals for these establishments always include providing a facility in which occupants feel safe and secure. But, those same occupants must remain completely unaware of how management provides that safety and security. Another important owner goal includes providing a false-alarm-free, code-compliant fire detection and alarm system.

These large venues present the challenge of how to properly integrate all of the fire detection, building management systems and security systems effectively and reliably. Proper integration of these systems helps make them easier to operate and use.

As any professional contractor might expect, to meet these challenges requires careful planning, awareness of other system interfaces and constant coordination during installation to ensure reliable system integration and operation. During the planning stage, you should review what variables might affect the design and operation of the detection and notification components of the fire alarm system. You should always consider the following:

  • Ceiling height
  • Ceiling configuration
  • HVAC operation—type of vents to be used
  • Lighting
  • Size of the space being protected
  • Interface with other building management systems
  • Interface with security systems
  • Ambient noise levels

Ceiling height and ceiling configuration present the most difficult issues to deal with in a detection system design. First and foremost, you should understand that the higher the ceiling, the larger the fire would have to be before detection will occur.

Most owners expect that a fire alarm system will detect an event as small as a wastebasket fire on a casino floor. Detection must occur before such a fire will affect the occupants. However, a casino with 40-foot ceilings presents a challenge on two fronts. First, the contractor must place detection devices in such a fashion that they can overcome the stratification that will occur as the column of heat and smoke rising from a fire begins to cool and reaches equilibrium with the air around it. Once the column of heat and smoke cools, it stops rising when it encounters an air layer with a temperature equal to or warmer than the temperature of the heat and smoke.

If you have designed spot-type smoke detection for these high ceiling environments, you will likely have missed the goal of early detection. Placing spot type smoke detectors on high ceilings also will make it difficult to maintain the detectors. Both NFPA 70, National Electrical Code (NEC), and NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, require that devices and equipment remain accessible for servicing.

In any case, upon a more careful examination and a more thorough discussion with the owner, you may agree that detecting a wastebasket-sized fire in a large space such as a casino may represent an unrealistic fire protection goal.

Linear projected beam-type smoke detectors provide one type of smoke detection that has proven effective in high ceiling environments. A contractor can place these detectors on multiple levels to help overcome the stratification effects in the protected space.

The effects of the HVAC system on smoke movement during the early stages of the fire are equally important for the contractor to consider. In many cases, with proper placement of linear beam smoke detection, a proper design can mitigate these effects.

Fire on film

Video smoke detection offers another option in large spaces. NFPA 72 has recognized these devices in the 2007 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code. Because these are specialty detection devices, a contractor must base the location and spacing of video smoke detectors on the detector’s principle of operation and on an engineering survey of the conditions anticipated in service. The contractor should consult the manufacturer’s published instructions for recommended detector uses and locations. Heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems tend to affect video smoke detectors somewhat less, as the device looks at the protected area much in the same way that a person would view that area.

Video smoke detection offers the benefit described in NFPA 72-2007, section “Video signals generated by cameras that are components of video image smoke detection systems shall be permitted to be transmitted to other systems for other uses only through output connections provided specifically for that purpose by the video system manufacturer.”

This feature can offer a benefit when providing both security and fire detection from the same camera. However, the camera must always remain stationary. This will limit its use in a security system to areas where the camera covers a specific portion of a space, such as a door.

In addition, both linear projected beam smoke detectors and a video smoke detection system will accommodate ceiling configurations that contain beams and pockets. However, lighting in the space affects both of these options somewhat differently. Obviously, bright lights will enhance the ability of video detection to perform as expected. However, bright lights shining directly at a transmitter or receiver of a linear projected beam smoke detector may deteriorate the detector’s ability to perform as expected. Low lighting, such as in a lounge, will negatively affect some video smoke detectors. A contractor should always consult the manufacturer as to what effect lighting will have on a detector’s ability to detect smoke in the early stages of fire development.

The size of the space will dictate how many devices the contractor will need to meet the owner’s detection goals. Most casinos will consist of large spaces for the gaming and slot machine areas and smaller areas for specialty gaming or lounges. Each of these areas will face the challenges associated with ceiling height and configuration, lighting, and HVAC system airflow. In addition, the contractor may have to interface the fire alarm system with the HVAC system in order to prevent the forced migration of smoke.

NFPA 72-2007 provides the requirements for interfacing a fire alarm system with an HVAC system. The code requires that “connections between fire alarm systems and the HVAC system for the purpose of monitoring and control shall operate and be monitored in accordance with applicable NFPA standards. Smoke detectors mounted in the air ducts of HVAC systems shall initiate either an alarm signal at the protected premises or a supervisory signal at a constantly attended location or supervising station.”

In many assembly occupancies such as casinos, smoke control will help meet the egress requirements of the building or NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. If the fire alarm control unit actuates the HVAC system for the purpose of smoke control, the code requires that the automatic alarm-initiating zones coordinate with the smoke-control zones they actuate.

The code also requires that, where interconnected as a combination system, a firefighter’s smoke control station (FSCS) must perform manual control over the automatic operation of the system’s smoke control strategy. And, where interconnected as a combination system, the smoke control system must be programmed to make certain that normal HVAC operation or changes do not prevent the intended performance of the smoke control strategy. The smoke control system will often present the most difficult system for the designers and installers of the two interfaced systems to coordinate.

As most contractors know, if these systems do not perform as required during the acceptance testing, witnessed by the authorities having jurisdiction, the building will not receive its certificate of occupancy and will not open on time.


Finally, because of the abnormally high ambient noise levels, alarm notification offers one of the most difficult challenges in a casino environment. Based on the large assembly characteristics of the occupancy, a contractor will most often have to provide an emergency voice/alarm communications system.

In gaming situations, the patrons will not readily focus on hearing an alarm signal. In fact, patrons constantly hear ringing bells and other sounds emanating from slot machines as well as loud shouts from fellow patrons playing other games in the casino. So how does a professional contractor meet this challenge?

First, you must recognize the problem and know that you will need to install more speakers placed on the ceiling throughout the casino. Second, you will need to set the power level of the speakers to overcome ambient noise levels. And third, you must make a provision to shut off or significantly reduce the ambient noise level from a loud local source, such as a band playing in the middle of the casino.

The code provides guidance for all of these challenges. But, you may prefer to consult with a fire protection engineer who has a background in dealing with such issues to assist you in meeting this challenge.

In many cases, the uniqueness of a fire alarm system installation in a hospitality venue will encourage a professional contractor to partner with other professionals to ensure a profitable and reliable fire alarm system installation. The challenges of such jobs are great, and the aspects of the job you must consider will far exceed a typical fire alarm installation. If you do not have experience installing fire alarm systems in hospitality settings, partnering with other professionals may be a good idea.

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.

About The Author

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, was a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is president of the Fire Protection Alliance in Jamestown, R.I. Reach him at [email protected]





featured Video


New from Lutron: Lumaris tape light

Want an easier way to do tunable white tape light?


Related Articles