Managing a large or complex facility becomes a lot easier if you can get the right information at the right time, in the right place. Today’s fire indicating panels collect and organise tremendous amounts of real-time information that could be very useful during a fire alarm incident: If it were available on a truly portable device such as a smartphone or tablet.
Buildings are getting bigger. Urban developers pack entire villages into residential or commercial skyscrapers dozens of stories high. The latest shopping centres and hospitals have tens of thousands of square metres under one roof. Universities sprawl over vast areas or crowd into large-footprint buildings as big as suburban shopping centres.
Protecting the occupants of these vast 21st century facilities is no trivial task. Their fire alarm systems often have multiple control panels and thousands of individual sensors. Advanced fire indicating panels are state of the art computer systems which are very good at storing and presenting large amounts of information in a user-friendly format.
The stakes are high. A fire in one of these huge complexes puts hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people at risk. Unwanted alarms are common. Unnecessary fire brigade callouts cost thousands of dollars in callout fees.
The best fire systems make it easy to track the development of fire alarm incidents. In theory they provide a wealth of information that helps facility managers quickly establish whether they are dealing with a real fire or a nuisance alarm. But there is one catch: Fire indicating panels are not portable.
Many facility managers could use a fire system that runs on a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. A quick, easy, and very effective way to achieve that is to use remote access software such as TeamViewer. This software links a PC-connected fire system to the mobile device.
There are two practical ways to implement a remote access system.
Fire Graphics Systems
The first option is to use a fire graphics system such as Pertronic FireMap. When used with a Pertronic intelligent fire indicating panel, FireMap displays the location and status of each fire sensor on a set of maps or floorplans of the facility. Each sensor is represented as a coloured icon: The colour indicates the status, for example, red for alarm.
A graphics system such as FireMap allows a facility owner or manager to supervise their fire system from any internet-connected location. Many FireMap users report that the graphics system allows them to significantly reduce the incidence of unwanted alarms. Candles on a birthday cake lit up too close to a smoke detector, for example, may trigger a smoke sensor. In a case like this the facility manager usually has only a few minutes to prevent an expensive unnecessary fire brigade callout. The graphics system helps to quickly find the problem. If it’s a false alarm they can prevent the fire brigade callout: If it’s a real fire, they’re in a good position to make sure everyone gets out safely. Firefighters also appreciate quick access to information from the graphics system because it makes their job easier, safer, and more effective.
On many sites, remote access brings out the fire graphics system’s full potential. With a traditional FireMap workstation, a facility manager can check the status of multiple fire sensors at a single glance. But without mobile access they will not know if the system’s status has changed since they last checked the FireMap workstation, which may be hundreds of metres away from the source of the alarm.
If the information is available on a smartphone or tablet, the building manager can watch the progress of an incident as they move around the facility. If a smoke alarm happens to be a side-effect of a birthday party, usually only one smoke sensor will report an alarm, and the alarm condition may clear while the facility manager is on their way to investigate. If it’s a real fire, the facility manager will see alarm conditions from additional sensors, triggered by events such as the spread of smoke, automatic sprinkler activation, and people activating manual fire call points.
Fire system simulators
A second option is to run a fire system simulator such as Pertronic FireUtils. This application provides the personal computer with full control of the fire indicating panel. The screen displays an image of the fire indicating panel’s keyboard and display. Buttons on the fire indicating panel can be pressed by clicking the mouse or tapping the touchscreen. Usually the PC is connected to the fire indicating panel’s serial communications port with a USB cable and an appropriate adapter (RS232). TeamViewer software extends the PC’s display on to the smartphone or tablet, which makes the simulator accessible from any location with cell-phone coverage.
Engineers, technicians and building managers can use this type of simulator for a variety of purposes. For example, on many large projects the sensor bases are mounted and wired up. The plug-in sensors are installed as late as possible, to prevent dust from construction activities building up inside the sensors.
When it’s time to plug in the sensors, technicians can save many hours by using a smartphone or tablet to check each sensor as it is plugged in. An advanced fire indicating panel such as the Pertronic F220 displays sensor information in well-organised, easily accessible lists. A technician using TeamViewer and a fire system simulator can use their smartphone or tablet to check each sensor as they plug it in, making sure it is the correct type, that it is properly plugged in and working normally. Having this information at the technician’s fingertips dramatically speeds up installation and commissioning.
An extreme example of the value of remote access was the installation of the fire system at Scott Base, the main Antarctic operations centre for Antarctica New Zealand. The Scott Base electrician installed the system, while engineers from fire alarm supplier FFP Canterbury Ltd. used the panel utility software to check the system and answer technical questions from the comfort of their office and workshop in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Remote access can also simplify routine maintenance such as cleaning smoke sensors. Advanced fire indicating panels can identify sensors that need to be cleaned. A maintenance technician can use their smartphone or tablet to isolate sensors while they are being cleaned, to check them after cleaning, and to reinstate the system when the maintenance work is completed. Having the panel controls available on a smartphone saves a great deal of walking between sensors and fire indicating panel.
Choose the right solution for each project
Using remote access opens the door to a range of practical solutions. Each facility presents unique challenges, which is why fire alarm manufacturers offer a range of options. For example, maintenance technicians may use either a fire system simulator, or a fire graphics application, to isolate smoke sensors for cleaning and testing. The choice depends on the system. At Dunedin Public Hospital in the South Island of New Zealand, for instance, the fire system has nine Pertronic F120A fire indicating panels, together with numerous PC workstations running Pertronic FireMap. The system is maintained by Toby Reynolds, a fire system technician at Tansley Electrical. Mr. Reynolds uses an iPad to control the entire system from anywhere, on or off the hospital campus. Remote access to the FireMap system makes it easier to deal with nuisance alarms. Mr. Reynods also uses his iPad and FireMap during routine maintenance such as smoke sensor cleaning and testing.
Applications such as TeamViewer work equally well on smartphones or tablets. Both fire graphics systems (such as Pertronic FireMap), and panel simulators (such as Pertronic FireUtils) offer big cost savings and rapid access to critical information during real emergencies.
Remote access applications can only ever be as good as the fire indicating panels they supervise and control. Fire graphics applications such as Pertronic FireMap need precise information about the source of each fire system “event”, such as an alarm or fault indication from a sensor. FireMap displays a map or floorplan showing the location of every sensor. If the fire indicating panel does not identify the location, FireMap cannot do its job.
A fire system simulator such as Pertronic FireUtils replicates the fire indicating panel’s display and keyboard on the screen of a smartphone or tablet. It is the panel’s job to organise the information and present it in an easily understood format. No simulator can overcome the limitations of an inferior fire indicating system.
Remote access solutions put meaningful, well-organised information at the facility manager’s fingertips: Anywhere, anytime. Whether the system runs on a smartphone or a tablet, these solutions offer real, tangible benefits. Cost savings are often measured in tens of thousands of dollars per year. Many sites achieve significantly improve operational efficiency, thanks to reduced disruption from nuisance alarms.
In a real emergency, access to critical information in real-time can make the difference between life and death.
For more information, go to www.pertronic.com.au