Designing out the risk of fire

The impact of fire to UK businesses is severe, both in terms of damage and insurance, with costs estimated in the billions. In difficult economic times it may be tempting for businesses to cut corners but here, Peter Lackey, Fire Product Marketing Manager for ADT Fire & Security argues that utilising the latest fire prevention technologies is a cost that should not be measured purely in cash terms. 

According to the Department of Local Communities and Government, between 2011 and 2012 there were 24,100 fires recorded in buildings other than dwellings, resulting in the deaths of 25 people and the non-fatal casualties of 1,200 people. In addition, from an economic standpoint, insurance claims for fire damage is now running at an all-time high.  

A fire can be absolutely devastating and having one occur within a building that you are responsible for would probably feature at the top of the list of most building services engineers’ worst fears.

In addition, the impact of a fire is also far-reaching including business interruption, cash flow volatility and loss of reputation. However, these consequences represent only a proportion of the total cost of fire. It might be a staggering statistic but you should also take into account that 80% of single site businesses will not recover from a major fire.

Growing concern

Should a fire take place it can be a disaster on several counts. However there is a growing concern that when economic times are hard and budgets are increasingly stretched, that some businesses may delay a much-needed upgrade of fire detection and alarm systems.

When the budget axe threatens to fall, it is vital to remind ourselves just how fundamental an effective fire detection and alarm system is to life, property and business survival. Technology is ever evolving and the latest developments are geared towards meeting a different set of risks and challenges demanded of anyone involved in the sourcing, installing and servicing of these life safety systems.

Building services and environmental engineers who are concerned that the fire detection system within their building might not be as effective as it perhaps could be should consider the following.

Fact finding

Gaining all the facts is an important part of the process and guidance is available in the advisory engineering code of practice – BS 5839-1 Fire Detection and Alarm systems for Buildings, which identifies key features to be considered to ensure a system provides the highest standards of protection. BS 5839-1 covers a whole range of systems from simple manual installations to complex analogue and digital addressable networks supporting hundreds of detectors and devices. Amongst other things, the code explains categories of systems and assists designers or risk assessors to determine the correct category for the risk being protected. This is the start point for setting your fire safety strategy.

Those responsible for commercial buildings have available to them a range of complex and intelligent systems incorporating different detector types, including smoke, heat and carbon monoxide, with all three often incorporated into one device. 

Large commercial buildings are also likely to have unoccupied areas or common corridors, which means it might be necessary to include automatic fire detection if this is not already in place. On activation these devices signal back to a control panel, which in turn switches on the sounders. Notification of an alarm can be via sirens, bells, the spoken voice or a range of beacons, or tactile devices such as vibrating pagers for the hard of hearing. Without this, a fire could develop to such an extent that escape routes are affected, or even blocked by smoke and poisonous gases, before the fire is discovered.  

In addition to taking on board the latest design and installation advice, it is essential that those responsible for specifying fire detection systems update themselves on the latest products, which could actually help to reduce both initial installation and on-going costs.

New technology

Older buildings may well still have fire detection systems in place that employ analogue technology however the latest, most effective systems utilise digital technology, which allows for a far more robust system. This is because the signal from the fire detector to the control panel is more reliably transmitted and digital fire detection and alarm systems allow for a greater level of sophistication than their analogue predecessors.

The latest generation of fire detection technology – Generation 6 is based on ADT’s established MZX Technology platform. This new development offers unique functionality and additional benefits to provide speedier installation, more efficient programming and a superb detector lifespan between service changes.

Generation 6 digital technology also delivers superior detection performance, greater fault tolerance and improved environmental protection, enabling quicker and easier installation and reducing the overall cost of the system. The 850 and 830 series detectors included within the range use sophisticated digital signalling to communicate with the MZX fire control panel, providing a robust and secure fire detection network that is engineered to suit the requirements of the environment and application.

Furthermore, Generation 6 detectors feature a remote wireless link built into the device housing, which enables two way communication with the new 850 EMT Engineering Management Tool.  This functionality is an industry first and allows electrical contractors to adjust the settings and parameters of the detector using this simple hand held device, without having to manually access each detector.

In commercial buildings that tend to have a large quantity of detectors or access issues, this offers time as well as cost savings as does the ability to perform remote diagnostics and elements of servicing via the management tool.  These capabilities help to reduce the total cost of ownership over the life of the system.

An added advantage is that this method makes the installation and programming of detectors significantly safer by allowing contractors to work at ground level.

False alarms

The latest systems also help to reduce the number of false alarms. By utilising multi-sensing detection types that combine optical smoke, carbon monoxide and heat detection into a single device, building services engineers can avoid unnecessary false alarms and improve the reliable and early detection of real fire.  Used with some of the most powerful algorithms available in the world from a fire alarm system, the resilience of Generation 6 detection technology from ADT offers zero tolerance to false and unwanted alarms whilst still providing early, reliable detection.

Another major consideration should be the cost of ownership footprint. The projected life of MZX systems is in excess of 30 years and within that, carbon monoxide devices have a minimum life of 10 years between service changes and smoke devices an incredible 20 years in a benign environment before needing to be changed. This is twice as long as the industry standard, which means that when customers invest in an MZX Technology fire alarm system, they are putting their money into technology and not cable and labour.

When budgets are a real issue, it’s important to realise that upgrading to a digital fire detection and alarm system has become easier and more cost effective. Systems can operate over many cable types so that when it comes to refurbishments, existing cables can often be re-used making installation easier for the contractor and again, helping to minimise costs of an upgrade. In addition, digital systems can still be used in combination with analogue technology to create hybrid systems.

For fire det
ection systems to be as effective as possible they need to be robust, reliable and fit for purpose. With technology and product capability progressing rapidly it’s crucial to take the time to research what is available to ensure absolute confidence that the system in place provides the highest levels of protection.

Having an effective fire detection and alarm system installed is absolutely paramount. Whilst, of course, budgets are tight and often stretched to the limit, when it comes to fire detection and the safety of lives and property, delaying any upgrades that you think might indeed be warranted could put lives and businesses at unnecessary risk.

The message really is about taking time to look into the options as today, upgrading may well be easier and more cost effective than you think.

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