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100 Years of Fire Detection Innovation

This year marks a major milestone for the VIGILANT fire detection brand. The company celebrates 100 years since it introduced its first automatic fire alarm and detection product, the Vigilant Thermostat Fire Detector that was patented by Matthew Maloney back in August 1914.

Today, Vigilant continues to innovate with a dedicated New Zealand research and development centre based in Christchurch. The centre has been in continuous operation for the past 100 years and during this time has built an impressive bank of world-class specialist expertise in the area of fire detection technology.

Thermostatic heat detectors rely on a bimetallic element that converts temperature changes into a mechanical displacement, using similar principles to how a heater thermostat works. The original Vigilant fire detector developed in 1914 had a long metal tube that enclosed an internal solid metal bar touching a small lever. Under sudden heat, the outer tube expands faster than the inner bar, releasing the lever. When electrical contact is made it rings the alarm. While today’s fire detection products are more compact, this simple, highly reliable, mechanical technology developed by Mathew Maloney 100 years ago is still used today.

New Zealand’s first fire detector was developed based on an observation that Mr Maloney made while working as an electrical engineer for the New Zealand postal service. While out on the job he noticed that the copper telephone lines were sagging and making contact with the iron electrical wires, but they would suddenly jerk taut again whenever a cold southerly wind blew. These observations led him to invent and patent the first Thermostat Fire Detector.

In the early years there were many challenges in developing fire detection technology due to the lack of public appreciation for fire detection products. For the three decades since first patenting its Thermostat Fire Detector, Vigilant installed approximately 200 fire alarm systems in public buildings, but it was not until the disastrous Ballantynes Department Store fire in Christchurch on 18th November 1947, which claimed 41 lives, that the attitude towards fire protection changed.

During this time a range of different fire detectors and control panels were designed, patented and marketed with Vigilant undertaking exhaustive trials. Working with the New Zealand Government, alarms were installed in many government buildings and connected to fire brigade stations.

While the look of fire detectors today has changed dramatically from the long thin probes originally used to collect heat, the bimetallic disc in today’s detectors is very small and lightweight so it operates very rapidly, with small holes in a circular collar used to collect heat from the air. Analogue addressable technology has also been introduced, which provides a continuous reading about how much smoke or how much temperature there is in an affected area. Unlike the original invention that required a search for the fire, addressable technology can identify a particular detector in a particular room so one can immediately identify which room is being affected.

New innovations also include sophisticated microprocessor technology. Vigilant’s MX1 is an example of a new generation analogue addressable panel that uses IP networking to enable computer-style communication between fire detection panels and to annunciators. This technology is very effective for large scale venues and premises, such as universities and hospitals, where dedicated fire detection networks run separately to other networks.

As demand for products that can assist with the orderly evacuation of large premises grows, the Vigilant research and development team in Christchurch is leading innovation in fire detection technology and mass notification systems that can help lock-down sites and communicate with occupants during a large scale emergency. Such technology that goes beyond fire protection is what the industry can look forward to in the coming years.

Today Vigilant, as part of the Tyco Fire Protection group, leverages global expertise by collaborating with research and development experts globally and will continue to lead innovation across the ANZ region. 

For more information, go to www.tycosafetyproducts-anz.com

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