What Does a Fire Alarm Panel Control?

Do you know how much control that alarm box has? Have you seen just how deeply it’s wires invade the systems of your building? This is another essential, modern miracle of engineering. When things go wrong, we can use every component of a building to get people out safely.


Alarm Misconceptions

Most people look at the fire alarm and think it’s just like in the movies. On the big and little screen, we’ve portrayed our safety systems as being pretty dumb. You pull the alarm and suddenly the entire building is in a gentle rain and a bell dings. There probably are systems like this in the world, but most don’t quite work like that and it’s not the full story. In its simplest terms, your alarm system is a big noise maker. In modern terms, it’s a full-on building automation system in a box.

Your building is a complex intertwining of separate, complex systems. You have the air ducts which blast fresh, cold air into the rooms during the summer. You have water pumps and boilers supplying water. There’s electrical breakers, elevators, and maybe even RFID-Tag/Key fob/pin-code access doors all over. Every one of these components is going to pose a problem when a fire breaks out.

What do you do if someone’s in the elevator, and the fire is in the elevator mechanical room? What do you do if there’s an air vent blasting cold air into a room with a spreading, growing fire? For those unaware, cold air is better for a fire than hot air, and any air blowing is just going to make the fire bigger. Perhaps even worse, do you want fire fighters to spend precious minutes having to chop key-fob doorways because they either don’t have the fob, dropped the fob, or just can’t keep it in-hand with their big gloves?

In 1950, the days when a fire alarm system really was just an alarm on the wall, these weren’t issues. This is perhaps the origin of the misconception that an alarm is just an alarm. There weren’t restricted access rooms, the doors were mostly wooden and easily chopped through, and elevators were still an expensive commodity rather than a standard, ADA-Mandated feature. Our alarms have evolved exponentially with the digital age.


Total Control

So, how deeply can your alarm panel control the building? In an ideal, fully setup and configured building, that is maximizing every possible integration imaginable, we might see a sequence of events like:

  1. Smoke alarm id: 1a:2b:3c:17:4e:6c triggered in mechanical room
  2. Electrical breakers shut off for effected area, emergency lighting kicks in
  3. Building-Wide Alarm, custom verbal exit instructions relayed per-location
  4. All elevators stop at next floor and evacuate occupants.
  5. Once elevator indicates 0 occupancy, recall to ground floor. Resumes function with firekey only.
  6. All keycard/keyfob/keycode doors deactivate/default to unlocked (except hazmat)
  7. Magnetic-locking fire doors close to contain the fire in strategic locations
  8. HVAC fans/ducts configure to remove smoke
  9. Local dispatch alerted to alarm status and location
  10. Sprinklers tripped by rising temperatures
  11. Sprinkler booster pump kicks in
  12. Main fire pump kicks in (bigger than booster)

The level of automation we have in our safety systems is insane today. By the time you see the message in the dispatch center, the building is already containing the fire. You can stand there in the lobby, pull the alarm, and every key-access thing around you beeps and unlocks. The big, heavy doors to the hospital hallway, usually held open by electromagnets slam shut to the fire won’t get through them easily. It’s like a well oiled machine, the key turns and boom, every single system in the building is working.

If it’s part of your building, we can integrate it into the alarm and use it to get everyone out safe. In some cases, this is even essential. Factories and manufacturing plants need to follow procedures to be safely shut down. Certain chemical reactors need to open valves or have neutralizing agents dumped in before they are safely inert. In automated facilities that use robotic equipment, the robotic arms need to return to a safe ‘home’ position for mechanical locks to hold it in place, otherwise it could move and hurt one of the fire fighters coming through the area later.

This stuff is just amazing.

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