There can be fewer product categories where the consequences of using counterfeit goods can be as potentially catastrophic as that of fire detection equipment. Although the reported cases of imitation detectors are thankfully rare, the potential risks should never be underestimated.
So, how can customers take steps to ensure their fire detection products are the real deal, and avoid the dangers of fake devices, and what are the crucial testing processes that legitimate equipment must undergo?
One of the most notorious cases of counterfeit fire detectors took place in Atlanta, USA in 2011 where over 18,500 fake smoke detectors, which had been handed out free to low-income neighbourhoods by the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, were recalled following an FBI investigation. Whereas this example undoubtedly falls into the rare category, it serves to highlight not only how even the most experienced of organisations can be easily tricked into buying counterfeit fire detectors, but also the extensive possible risk to human life.
When it comes to fire detection equipment, the rigorous design process, validation testing, testing before and during production and ongoing quality checks that authentic professional companies carry out is key to the reliability of their life safety products. Counterfeit products may, to the untrained eye, look identical, but no copycat product will ever benefit the end user in terms of protecting and saving life as well as one which has been through the meticulous testing procedures of a genuine and reputable fire detection manufacturer.
If we take the testing procedures at Apollo as an example, the attention to detail in this rigorous process becomes clear.
During and after the design process, the products are subjected to the most comprehensive testing and validation procedures to ensure performance and reliability to real life conditions is achieved. Apollo’s site in the UK includes five test laboratories, which put every piece of equipment through its paces, not only as part of new product development, but also as ongoing quality control. These different laboratories, with state-of-the-art equipment, cover every possible replicable scenario a product may encounter, from extreme environmental conditions to harsh electrical and radio interference.
The fire testing laboratory allows products to be tested in varying fire conditions, with the conditioning testing offering tests against a wide variety of different conditions, including fluctuating temperatures, humidity, vibration and shock.
The performance and verification laboratory comprises large scale heat, smoke and gas tunnels and the electro-magnetic compatibility (EMC) laboratory tests against a variety of factors such as noise, interference, static and lightning strike conditions. Finally, the audio and visual (AV) laboratory is used to test the performance of notification devices to exacting standards. This includes the use of a Hemi anechoic chamber, a room designed with a solid floor to completely absorb reflections of sound to eradicate noise distortion and simulate a quiet open-space of infinite dimension.
The combination of these five laboratories results in a highly stringent testing process where products are not only tested to exceed European regulations, but also the approval requirements of every country to which products are supplied. Apollo, for example, holds in excess of 3,000 product approvals worldwide as well as a number of internationally recognised quality and environmental awards. Such is the strength of the test facilities, that Apollo is one of only a few manufacturers able to perform the majority of EN54 product standard tests.
Once the testing stage is complete, a product will proceed to the third-party testing stage for the appropriate certification, for example EN54, before heading to manufacture. The whole testing process can take anything from three to six months for a manual call point, to up to two years for a new fire detector. We then proceed to initial product manufacture where we will continue to stringently test every new product batch until we have 100 percent confidence. Manufactured products are continually tested, through both regular random sample testing and full annual product audits.
Because reputable manufacturers design, make and test their products from scratch, they can often ‘go back to the drawing board’ to address any viability issues that arise. Because counterfeit products are not based on this detailed design and testing process, imitation device manufacturers cannot ever pay this level of attention to detail to their products.
The Risks and How to Avoid Them
The two main dangers of counterfeit fire detection equipment are firstly, their non-compliance with industry standards, and secondly, the potential for non-compatibility within an overall fire detection system. In a situation where every single piece of equipment, no matter how small, contributes to the safe and effective working of a fire detection and alarm system, the consequences of failure due to counterfeit elements could be devastating.
To avoid these risks, the supply chain needs to take steps to ensure that the products it is supplying and installing are reliable and fit for purpose, particularly if they are dealing with a new or unknown supplier. The authenticity of fire detection and alarm equipment should never be taken for granted and should always be verified at source. At Apollo, for example, we publish all of our part numbers as well as their relevant certification and we are always happy to answer enquiries relating to a product’s validity.
Checking the product certification is the first step in ascertaining a product’s authenticity. At Apollo, the back of each of our devices displays not only the product number, but also the individual approval logos and relevant certification numbers that can be checked with the governing body concerned.
But what if a counterfeit manufacturer copies these logos and product numbers? Even the small details can give the game away: Counterfeit manufacturers may try and reduce costs wherever they can, and this reduction of quality often shows in their products. If you place a genuine fire product next to a fake one, there are a number of differences that can often be seen. An example of these differences includes the grade (quality) of materials, and therefore the colour of the plastics used. If the investigation is taken to the next level by dismantling a counterfeit product, you may see a marked difference compared to the original. Counterfeit products often use old technology with low cost boards and lots of copper compared to the modern layered boards used today. Other differences include details such as the quality of the labelling, and even the fact that the font on the labelling may look ‘cheap or different’ – all signs that the products may be an imitation.
All of these pointers are valuable, but what if you are new to fire detection and alarm products, or have no genuine product against which you can compare?
The advice that we give would be to always use a reputable distributor or supplier, do your background research by looking at a company’s website and checking your device against the images and certificates shown and to use your common sense when it comes to price. Cost will almost always be the strongest indication when it comes to looking out for the warning signs of counterfeit products, so if a product appears too cheap then it is worth making additional checks. If a products price is too good to be true, it usually is.
LPCB provides the independent, third-party certification of fire and security products and services worldwide and Apollo has been working with them for many years. Speaking about the issue of counterfeit fire detectors, LPCB International Business Development Manager, Tony Dodkin, says: “The certifications that LPCB carry out give independent confirmation by an expert third- party that a product, system or service meets, and continues to meet, appropriate standards. Certification gives suppliers and purchaser’s confidence that products and services will perform as expected – through a combination of regular company audits and a schedule of ongoing auditing.
He continues: “Our certification work in the fire detection industry sees us not only examining and certifying a new end product, but also carrying out factory inspections at manufacturers’ premises, random product audits and equipment checks. We do receive requests from installers and distributors questioning the validity of new products that they are looking to install or stock or checking that certification numbers are authentic, and we welcome this level of vigilance. As well as checking directly with us, anyone wanting to check a genuine approved product can search the industry “red book” – an online resource (redbooklive.com) that lists all certified manufacturers and their products. All users need to do is type in the certificate number and they can see a description and any additional
He concludes: “The fire detection industry is often perceived as one which is slow moving in terms of new technology, but there is no doubt that it is also one of the most driven in terms of industry standards and legislation. By taking advantage of checking a product against these many certifications, people can avoid the pitfalls of counterfeit devices.”
Going back to the example of the Atlanta Fire Department, we can see how even simple checks can protect against counterfeit devices. Part of the investigation into the supply of the fake devices discovered that a simple five-minute Internet search looking at the federal Excluded Parties List System would have revealed that the counterfeit supplier, Silver Sails, was banned from doing business with the federal government.
As a result of the case, the City of Atlanta implemented a new policy as part of its procurement process to check the background of every company that bids on goods in Atlanta, not just the fire department, and also requests samples of all products to check their validity.
At Apollo, we cannot stress enough how crucial it is for purchasers to take this level of responsibility to ensure that they are installing and maintaining an authentic fire detection product and one that is fully warranted. A true manufacturer’s product will, above all else, protect and save lives, and any building owner has the significant responsibility to customers, staff or whoever uses their facilities to ensure that this responsibility is taken seriously.
For further information, go to www.apollo-fire.co.uk