Don't Get Burned

Have your staff well trained in fire safety. Part of this is teaching them the basics of industrial fire safety systems.

AS a facility safety director or fire protection manager, you have several types of training to offer to different groups of people.

First, there's your own staff, especially new people. You need to bring them up to the level of fire safety sophistication you require and desire. Second, other groups that are or may become involved in life safety and facility protection must be brought up to speed. These hands-on workers, such as security professionals, building operators, and maintenance staff, need to know not only how your fire systems work, but also how to operate them, even under emergency conditions. Third, individuals with managerial responsibilities, such as supervisors, department heads, and human resources personnel, need to be informed. They must understand the fire systems in a general way so they can reinforce your training with their staff and give level-headed advice in an emergency. Fourth, everyone who works in your facility needs training. This includes everyone from the hourly sweeper through every level and capacity of employee, right up to the top manager or CEO. You might want to begin with information as basic as a "four stages of fire" chart, which explains the merits of smoke detectors.

The basics of industrial fire safety systems discussed in this article are key elements to a well-trained staff in a facility safety department that assures a successful program.

Know the System
An industrial fire safety system, installed within NFPA guidelines, protects building personnel from injury while at the same time protecting the building, equipment, machinery, and other assets of the business. Smoke and heat detectors, duct detectors, and pull stations may be part of the system, as well as transmit/receive modules that monitor sprinkler flow and tamper switches, kitchen hoods in the cafeteria, and the shutting down of air-handling units.

Loudspeakers, ADA strobes, emergency exit lights, and pagers that automatically vector appropriate information to strategic personnel also may be part of the safety mix. In some facilities, the central panel also supports selective paging for tornado warnings or other types of security situations.

Your staffers should understand the function of all such equipment installed in your facility and have a good idea of how it operates. Depending on the size of facility and staff functions, some staffers may need to be able to operate it themselves.

Know the Drill
You or your security department will want to run unannounced drills, including checks that personnel know where to go and that the building has been vacated. In case of actual alarm, the security, service, or maintenance group should have specific assigned responsibilities for reading the fire alarm panel, going to the indicated location, and assessing whether or not there is a fire. This, too, becomes part of the periodic fire drills.

Every area of the facility should have its own evacuation plan. A member of your staff or of a related group such as Human Resources should go over the plans with all new employees, pointing out egress routes and areas of refuge. In case of actual fire, it will be the responsibility of the security or other assigned group to sectionalize, localize, and isolate the source of threat if it is still manageable, such as controlling it with hand-held extinguishers. Designated personnel should be assigned responsibility to provide an escort to meet the fire brigade or fire department when it arrives and escort it to the location of the fire. If the threat is assessed as beyond local control, the assigned group should be instructed to withdraw and prepare to offer guidance to the fully trained fire brigade or fire department as it arrives.

Testing and Inspection
The group that will be responsible for actual operation of the fire control panel should be well trained in its use, including hands-on drills on the actual panels. Operators should also learn how to run sensitivity reports and other tests, print out logs, reset, and check out problems.

This sort of training is often handled by a service representative from the vendor's local office. In case of complex problems, the vendor should be alerted to the problem and asked to send a technician to work with the in-house group. A service contract with the vendor may also be desirable.

Training Seminars
Some vendors offer training seminars in the form of industry-generic educational presentations on how life safety equipment should be installed, operated, and maintained. A seminar may cover from basic codes and standards through every level of a life safety system, culminating in a description of how a fully integrated networked voice system works, what the system should be able to do, and planning and considerations prior to a fire event.

Two Points to Consider: Firefighters' Concerns, Smoke Control
Responder/operator interfaces for fire alarm systems address the concerns of firefighters worldwide. Firefighters called to large buildings frequently have trouble spotting the fire or knowing where they are in relation to it. An often-expressed concern of fire fighters around the world is their unfamiliarity with the information made available to them with fire detection panels as they enter a building while responding to a fire.

The most critical information that firefighters need to know as they rush to respond to an alarm includes: Where is the fire? Where are we in relation to it? How do we get from here to there? What will we find when we get to that location?

Firefighters and fire marshals are also interested in learning whether the alarm was sent by a smoke detector, a heat detector, a water flow detector, or a manual station, because that helps define the type of event they are going to encounter. Further, they would like to know the types of hazards that are present in the area, what firefighting equipment is stationed in the area, emergency exits and areas of refuge, and the types of people in that location who may need help in getting out.

In general, the fire alarm industry has done a good job of building intelligent detectors that respond quickly. But it has not done as good a job in terms of presenting information about the building and about the fire events to the firefighters responding in an emergency.

Most fire systems today offer a short text message that describes the location of the alarm. With only 30 or 40 characters' worth of space, it is usually abbreviated to the point where it might as well be coded. If the panel serves a large building, it can be virtually impossible to pinpoint the alarm location. In many cases, firefighters say they hate to waste time studying the uninformative screen message.

Of course, the idea of providing generous fire and building-related information is not new. PC-based graphic annunciators and command centers offer both pictures and graphic maps of the building, as well as virtually unlimited information. But a strange computer usually is not friendly to a firefighter in a hurry, and the cost of such an installation often puts it out of reach of competitive bidding. In other words, costs have been controlling the amount of information offered to firefighters by today's detection systems.

A new system with a display size allowing easier viewing and a touch screen permitting more intuitive operation brings understandable information into the average system without the cost of a PC. These new systems offer considerably more of the information that fire officials say they need.

These improved operator interface screens communicate in easy-to-read, large-text characters, display up to five events simultaneously, and use standard hazmat icons for safety. They employ shading to highlight critical information and two sizes of type for emphasis, with further information accessed via a lighted "More Info" button. Simple graphic maps are incorporated for clarity.

Clearly, response to a fire alarm is a stressful situation, underlining the importance of making the interface as easy to use as possible. To achieve this, fire system designers worked with industrial design staff experienced in cognitive research and human factors. The researchers provided user interaction studies based on mockups of proposed screen designs, and the designs were modified based on the reactions of system users. Besides the first responders, the operator interface is designed to accommodate several other levels of users. For building operators, everything was made easy and step-by-step, as close as possible to intuitive.

Building maintenance workers are not concerned with the details or physical architecture of systems. So rather than wasting panel space with loop number and device address, more room was allowed for detailing the actual location in the building. The fire panel software displays a geographic view--the way people look at the building, rather than the way the fire alarm architecture is set up.

Instead of requiring the specific device address, maintenance personnel can navigate and control any detector or group of detectors by working their way geographically to the units they need without a printout or set of plans.

Smoke Control
The simple issue with smoke control systems is to be able to control smoke during a fire incident so the danger is contained and the building can be safely evacuated. The fact is, it has recently been managed by the building automation system. But the trend over the last few years has been to shift that control to the fire protection system. That shift has created new fire alarm functions and performance requirements.

Additionally, because Underwriters Laboratory, Inc. (UL) has a listing category for smoke control equipment, the fire alarm manufacturers who have obtained that listing are forcing the requirement into job specifications. The growing number of specifications for smoke control systems are wrapped around some largely unknown performance standards. Customers often do not understand what has been requested or what they really want. This places more pressure on the specifier to be the subject matter expert.

Smoke control systems are broken into two major categories: Dedicated and Non-dedicated systems. Dedicated systems are simply those that don't perform any other function. The fans and dampers are not used for everyday ventilation, only for smoke control events. They often are found in stairwells and elevator shafts. Typically these areas are pressurized to prevent the spread of smoke through exit passageways in the building. In atria, these are typically used for smoke exhaust, in order to control the smoke layer.

Non-dedicated systems are those that provide HVAC in the building every day but are captured by the smoke control system in the event of a fire. There are many types of non-dedicated systems, and they are based upon the HVAC design. In other words, a building designed with single exhaust and pressurization fans to cover multiple floors or areas is a different type than one with fans for each floor. The basic principles are the same: The smoke control system captures the fans and dampers in order to control the smoke. The actual design of the smoke control system changes dramatically, however. In the first example, there are far fewer fans to control per fire zone than in the second. Today, the term HVAC has been replaced by BAS, for Building Automation System.

So exactly what makes up a smoke control system? The front end of every smoke control system is the Firefighters' Smoke Control Station. This station includes annunciation and status of every fan, damper, and other components of the smoke control system, typically through labeled LEDs. It also provides manual overrides for every fan and damper to be used by the fire department and usually requires positive feedback to confirm the appropriate fan or damper has reached the desired state. Therefore, the Firefighter Smoke Control Station must be in an accessible location.

The two major authorities on smoke control, UL and the Uniform Building Code, require that the station include a graphic representation of the building. Of course, all systems are not designed to those standards, but if compliance to either is written in the job specification, you will need to provide a graphic annunciator at the Firefighter's Smoke Control Station. This typically includes the LEDs for annunciating device status placed over an elevation view of the building.

Inputs to the system come from the basic fire initiating devices. Smoke detectors and/or manual stations initiate a smoke control sequence. As always, these devices are connected to the fire alarm system.

At the other end of the system are the fans and dampers to be controlled. They are typically connected to some portion of the building automation system. The challenge is to take the information from the initiating devices to the fans and dampers and process it, either in the fire system or the BAS system, to meet the specified control methodology of turning the correct fans and dampers on and off at the right times. The next step is the interface for exchanges of information between the fire and building automation systems. This can be accomplished in several ways and is usually more cost effective and reliable if the method is determined beforehand by way of a well-thought-out design and specification.

Either the building automation system provider or the fire protection system provider must assume a lead role in making the smoke control operation work properly. Both are providing hardware for the operation. Either of them can provide the Firefighter's Smoke Control Station, and either can process the logic necessary to control devices, and thus smoke.

Either system can monitor the Firefighter's Smoke Control Station switch inputs. But this covers only manual inputs by the firefighter. Automatic initiation of a smoke control sequence comes from fire alarm detectors and manual pull stations into the fire system alone. For this reason, a growing number of Firefighter's Smoke Control Stations are being supplied by fire alarm installers and controlled by the fire system. However, no matter which system is "providing smoke control," the fact remains that data has to transfer from the fire to the building automation system in order to operate the fans and dampers.

Two of the more common ways to get information from the fire system to the BAS system are: 1) The fire system monitors all inputs, processes the smoke control logic, and then operates fans and dampers through relays that capture the device controllers. This means the fire system is in control. 2) The fire system communicates fire events and conditions to the building automation system. That system will then process the logic that operates the proper fans and dampers, taking over the control of smoke. This second style of communication is provided through a high-level interface, with either a proprietary or open communications protocol, between the fire and building automation systems.

Consider one of the questions fire alarm installers ask most frequently: "If my fire alarm system is interfaced to a building automation system for the express purpose of smoke control, and if my job specification calls for the smoke control system to be UL listed under their category UUKL, then whose product(s) have to be listed? Fire, HVAC, or both?" As a matter of fact, most major fire alarm companies have equipment listed for smoke control, as do the building automation companies. Therefore, this issue probably will disappear in the future. A good rule of thumb, though, is that the system processing the smoke control logic must be listed for smoke control. The Firefighters' Smoke Control Station also must be listed. In other words, the UL mark must be displayed on the graphic annunciator that supplies the system annunciation and manual override switches. A third party--an annunciator manufacturer, often--manufactures the station. That manufacturer must have a listing for his product under the UUKL category.

And why is all this important? It all ties back to the sequence of operation.

Smoke Control Strategy
The engineer for the construction project will develop a smoke control strategy for the building. This will be in the form of a document often called a rational analysis. In English, it tells how this smoke control system is supposed to work. It will include at least three key items.

One is the sequence of operation. It defines step by step how the fans and dampers should operate: Shut off fan A, close damper 32, turn on fan F. Typical sequence of events for different applications can usually be found in the manufacturers' smoke control application guides.

The second key item is a detail as to the action caused by the various fire alarm initiating devices. For instance, manual stations very often will start purge or pressurization sequences in stairwells, atria, etc. Smoke detectors may initiate a floor-by-floor sequence designed to contain the smoke at the floor of incidence.

The third key to the rational analysis has to do with positive feedback of the smoke control operations. The strategy usually will provide some level of detail as to how quickly fans and dampers should operate. This will be specified in terms of actual operation and/or feedback at the Firefighters' Smoke Control Station. The Uniform Building Code has some very specific time limits for both the operation and the feedback.

This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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