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Challenging evacuations

05 December 2019

Kevin Swann discusses the latest developments in fire safety technology which are being used to protect complex premises

From the perspective of fire safety, complex premises are those that deliver challenges in how occupants are informed of a fire event, how quickly they react and how a site is safely evacuated.

The obvious examples are where public numbers are high and crowds are likely, with stadiums, music venues and transport hubs all presenting significant challenges in ensuring that fire exits are in sufficient volume and designed appropriately to ensure safe evacuation. 

Hospitals are, of course, a further challenge as patients may have reduced mobility, or may even be unconscious and/or attached to critical life-saving equipment. The recent fire in a private Rio de Janeiro hospital showed traumatic images of hospital employees rushing patients and equipment out of the building, and tragically resulted in at least 11 deaths.

Hotels can also be problematic due to the potential to have numerous floors, and large numbers of groups using various facilities, including conference rooms, restaurants, gyms and swimming pools. So, too, is there an issue of people being asleep, and slow to wake up and realise the urgency. 

Early detection and suppression are, of course, critical in any response to any fire event, and especially in public buildings where large numbers of occupants and critical infrastructure are to be protected. But a further critical step in mitigating the challenges of ensuring large numbers of occupants react appropriately to a fire event is answered by mass notification.

Mass notification

Mass notification is the concept of efficiently and reliably communicating critical and potentially life-saving evacuation procedures to a large number of people as quickly as possible. It’s a concept brought over from the US, similar to Lockdown, that has come to the forefront of the fire safety industry as a result of increased threats, including terrorism. 

As buildings become taller, larger and more complex, it is more important than ever to look at how technology can be used to keep people safe, especially those with reduced mobility. A ‘blend’ of technologies and solutions will also be needed to address the needs of other groups, such as those who are partially sighted or hard of hearing, and to take in to account different environments.

Even where everyone knows about a fire immediately, there remains an issue with people assuming it is a drill or false alarm.

Fire alarm apathy

The Government reports that the fire services attended 225,625false alarms in the year 2017/18. To put this in perspective, the London Fire Brigade states that for them this accounts to 104false alarms every day in London alone. 

While this obviously impacts the fire services’ resources, within the wider public, it also creates so-called ‘fire alarm apathy’. This apathy is a result of the public becoming complacent and it manifests itself in people being slow to react, collecting their belongings and not following fire procedures to the letter. 

This can have disastrous consequences, and it is our job as an industry to look for solutions that support immediate and urgent responses to alarms.   

Mass notification solutions

Tenability criteria, in respect to fire safety building regulations, relates to the time taken to detect, respond and inform a building’s occupants of a fire event. The tenable period is the time in which the effects of fire and smoke are not so hazardous as to stop fire services from entering a building. 

Spoken, visual, vibrating and sensory alarm devices have been proven to be more effective than straightforward sounders in combating fire alarm apathy, therefore evacuating building occupants more quickly and reducing the likelihood of untenable situations for fire services. 

Visual alarm devices however, while they have become more popular in the last few years, are not appropriate to all environments, for instance hotels, where the occupants may be asleep. In complex environments such as these, multiple communication channels should be used.

Where set fire procedures need to be changed during a fire event, for example where stay-put instructions need to be over-ridden, disabled refuge or emergency voice communication systems can be extremely useful. They provide a direct line of communication between the fire services and occupants and are located in designated areas that all occupants can access. 

Where we’re headed

The Internet of Things (IoT) and ‘Smart Buildings’ will be central to the future of mass notification because they enable all elements of a building’s electrical and IP-based infrastructure to be utilised to communicate alarms and evacuation procedures. For example, in a hotel, a fire alarm system can connect to other building management systems to switch bedroom lights on, activate TV and audio systems with specific messages, and send text messages – concurrently and automatically. This creates an alarm environment that is very difficult to ignore, and addresses all needs, including those with disabilities.

Integration is also critical when it comes to ensuring that building managers and the fire services know exactly who has been evacuated and/or who is left in the building. CCTV and access control systems need to talk to each other to provide automated information on who is in a building at any one time, and the future for this is wireless technology.

Open-protocol

Open-protocol functionality will be key to enabling installers to design systems that make the best use of the integrative capabilities that will deliver best-in-class mass notification. This allows installers complete flexibility to integrate systems and benefit from cross-system functionality, rather than be hindered by it.

By manufacturing open-protocol systems, companies such as Kentec give installers the flexibility to design systems that best suit the specific environment, without limiting them to a one-supplier approach.  

This is especially true where installers are part-retrospectively designing a system, for example only upgrading the fire panel and not any of the detectors, alarms and extinguishing systems. 

Taktis, Kentec’s most powerful and scalable fire panel, benefits from being ‘truly’ open protocol. This means that not only does the fire panel work with third-party detectors and systems, but also that all features and system benefits will be realised regardless of product suite. This is particularly useful for Modbus and Bacnet communication functionality, enhancing how end users can use their fire panels to report and communicate fire events and system status. 

Manufacturing support

Where functionality becomes more advanced and features more diverse, we are asking more of our installers, not only in designing the best systems, but also in communicating the benefits of these features to end users and ensuring they can use systems to best effect.  

We are supporting installers in this respect with the Kentec Installer Programme (KIP), which provides installers with bespoke training and technical support, as well as dedicated software and enhanced product functionality. Individuals are provided with ‘identification cards’ that will detail training courses passed. 

KIP partners are being carefully selected based on their skill, expertise, experience and accreditations. As a minimum, all KIP partners will be accredited to the fire industry quality standard, BAFE or LPCB third party certification schemes. This gives end users assurance that the installation will be carried out to the highest levels of quality and safety. 

We believe the programme will help to ensure that installers are able to optimise the open protocol nature of Kentec manufactured products to design best-in-class, convenient, flexible, and highly effective systems. And crucially to support mass notification functionality, both today and in the future. 

References

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/732555/fire-and-rescue-incident-march-2018-hosb1618.pdf

https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/safety/the-workplace/automatic-fire-alarms/

Kevin Swann is managing director of Kentec.

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