Time to take a close look at your fire safety systems

New legislation introduced this year and the increasing costs of false alarms mean that now is the time to examine fire safety in buildings. Derrick Hall, Head of Fire Products for Siemens Building Technologies outlines the latest products, regulations and standards.

There can be little doubt that fire safety in buildings is a top priority for designers, installers, owners and not least occupants. The potential danger to life is incentive enough to ensure that systems are operating optimally at all times, but there are other issues to consider, which are becoming increasingly pressing for businesses and other organisations.

False alarms

As new rules on fire safety systems have been introduced, now might be an opportune time to take a close look at the system in your building to check on compliance and the quality of performance. One of the first things to consider is the number of false alarms that a fire safety system is producing.

The Fire Industry Association (FIA) has highlighted the cost of false alarms which include lost production; disruption due to staff and customer evacuation; and increased insurance premiums.

Further costs are also being introduced across England and Wales as a growing number of fire brigades impose charges for call-outs due to false alarms. In May 2013, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) announced that it was looking at the option of charging £290 per engine attending a false alarm, and that under the proposals those organisations with more than ten false alarms per year would be the first to be charged.

It may seem like a radical move, but when the costs to the brigade of false alarms are considered it is not surprising. LFB estimates that the annual cost of false alarms to the Brigade is £37 million. False alarms generated by automatic fire detection and alarm systems amount to 40,000 call-outs every year in London, which represents a third of all incidents for the city’s fire crews.

Ironically, it would seem that those who can least afford the extra costs would face the biggest fines because hospitals were the worst offenders according to LFB. Also included in the list were student halls of residence, hotels and airports. Fire brigade experts say that the main cause of false alarms is poor management and maintenance. Incorrect detection, for example of burned toast, steam or cigarette smoke, is also an issue.

The right system

One of the first steps to take when considering the issue of false alarms is how well the system can distinguish a ‘real’ fire from harmless materials in the air. For example, the Siemens Cerberus PRO has advanced signal analysis (ASA) technology which can differentiate between steam, burning toast, dust and other materials. The system can be set to be highly sensitive or more robust, depending on client requirements. The Cerberus PRO range includes aspirating smoke detection that can quickly and reliably differentiate between smoke and other emissions and has proven technology that virtually eliminates false alarms.

Long-term maintenance also has to be considered, and with fire detection and alarm systems the issue of open protocols needs to be tackled. In the fire safety sector, the term ‘open protocol’ often refers to the availability of a product range and the servicing of those products. Clients are concerned about being locked in to one supplier, or about having fewer options for maintenance.

Finding a robust product which is widely available from a range of reliable installers is therefore very important. Siemens fire products are available from a number of installers, and all of them receive special training on the system to ensure they know how to get the best performance out of it for their customers.

However, the term ‘open protocol’ is also used in the building management system (BEMS) sector to refer to software programmes. Examples of open protocols in this sense include BACnet, LONWorks and KNX. The Siemens Cerberus PRO system is native BACnet enabled, giving installers and end-users a highly robust and flexible system.

For example, with BACnet as the platform, other important safety systems such as toilet alarms, lift returns and smoke and damper controls can be brought into the fire safety system.

Without BACnet as the platform, it would be costly and time-consuming to link these systems together. With a BACnet-enabled system you can eliminate these separate elements and place it all on the fire system, which is the most robust in the building. What’s more, notifications and alarms for example from toilets, can be carried on the BEMS interface software.

Siemens studies show that this approach can save 50% to 60% of the initial costs of the non-fire systems. It also reduces the costs of training because facilities managers only have to be trained on a single software interface, so that they can manage the daily operation of the building through the BEMS, as well as knowing that any fire or safety alarms will also be displayed there. Also, by linking the BEMS which controls elements such as ventilation to the fire safety system, it is possible to design in features such as smoke clearance.

Latest regulations

Whatever design options are selected, above all else, a fire detection and alarm system must comply with the latest regulations and Standards. The most recent development has been the introduction of the UK Construction Products Regulation (CPR) which came into force on 1 July 2013 across the whole of Europe including the UK. From that date all new products introduced to the market require CE certification and marking.

The new rules replaced the Construction Products Directive (CPD), but any certificates of conformity issued under the CPD are still valid and products do not have to be re-certified under CPR.

The CPR has been introduced to give clear information on the performance of all construction products. To comply with the CPR, fire detection and alarm systems must be certified with the European standard EN54 by an authorised certification centre. It is therefore important to check that any new products carry the CE mark, as the entire Cerberus PRO range does.

If the decision is made to link the fire safety system into a building’s BEMS, then it must also comply with BS5839. This Standard covers fire detection and alarm systems for non-domestic buildings and offers a code of practice for design, installation, commissioning and maintenance. It is particularly relevant for systems that are capable of providing signals to control the operation of other fire protection systems such as grounding of lifts, shut-off of air handling systems or closing of oil or gas valves. A further standard BS7273-4 deals with similar links between systems for releasing or closing doors and shutters in the event of a fire.

Perhaps the most significant piece of legislation that needs to be considered is the Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order (2005) or RRO. This is a very important piece of legislation because it introduces the concepts of a ‘responsible person’ and a ‘competent person’ in terms of fire safety in buildings.

RRO requires that a ‘responsible person’ takes ‘reasonably practical’ precautions that will ensure the safety of employees and others on the premises. The meaning of ‘responsible person’ is important. It encompasses the employer in a workplace, if that workplace ‘is to any extent under his control’. If this is not the case then the responsible person is the owner of the premises or the person who has control of the premises while carrying on a business there. Under the RRO, the responsible person can appoint ‘competent persons’ to help carry out work to meet the requirements of the RRO.

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However, it is the responsible person’s job to ensure that this team works together effectively. While authority can be granted to a third party, responsibility cannot be passed on. That is why it is so important for everyone concerned with buildings to pay close attention to products, system design, installation and regulatory compliance.

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