Knowing the right questions to ask can make the difference between quickly finding a robust, reliable, futureproof solution that builds trust in your service and making mistakes that can put lives at risk and cost money and reputations.
Vital allies on the road to successful specification are the fire equipment manufacturers themselves. Steeped in the latest fire regulations and focused on ensuring product compliance, they have many answers that will help you get the spec right the first time.
But what to ask? Although far from exhaustive, the following are some of the more important questions that architects and specifiers should be posing to ensure optimal building occupant safety.
Is the fire system fit for future expansion?
If you’re dealing with a large site with development ongoing, it’s important to check that the system you’re specifying will be easily capable of future expansion.
Finding out whether the equipment you’re considering has been approved to EN 54 Part 13 can help you here. This standard ensures that all selected products are compatible and requires a system to run automatic fault checking. This, in turn, assures optimal fire system performance and averts common problems that can jeopardise occupant safety. These include open and short circuits going undetected, as well as voltage reduction at the last devices on long cable runs, which can slow response speeds or even cause alarm failure on large networked systems.
How adaptable is the system?
In the case of retrofit sites, backwards compatibility and the ease of combining existing and new equipment are paramount. Finding out how flexible the fire panel and devices you’re considering can be is time well spent. Open- or multi-protocol fire systems allow much greater freedom of device choice, allowing you to specify based on your building’s needs rather than on what’s available in a particular manufacturer’s range. Some brands of devices lend themselves much better to the demands of areas prone to false alarms, for example, while others are ideal for buildings that require flush-mounted devices for reduced visual impact.
Another way specifying open protocol systems can aid occupant safety lies in the diligence they demand of the service companies employed to maintain them. Unlike with closed protocol systems, it is easy for building owners and managers to change the company they use to look after their open protocol fire system. This lack of ‘tie-in’ helps to ensure that systems are carefully maintained and issues are quickly resolved in pursuit of customer service excellence, loyalty and safety.
Ultimately, specifying fire panels that work with a variety of pre-existing equipment whilst also giving you free rein to design for optimum safety in a specific building will be a decision you’re unlikely to regret.
How effectively does the system tackle false alarms?
False alarms remain a persistent problem for building owners and managers. Specifiers who consciously choose fire systems that effectively tackle this pernicious issue will reap the rewards in peace of mind – and repeat business.
Regular false alarms threaten occupant safety by allowing complacency to settle in. This can have serious knock-on effects if/when real fire situations occur, by wasting precious early evacuation time and putting lives at risk.
Wise questions to ask manufacturers include how easy it is to programme their equipment to accommodate investigation delays and verification times that suit different building areas with varying false alarm risk levels. Also, seek clarification about the ease of adapting the false alarm management to suit changes in building use. As a rule, if it’s easy to do, it will get done well – so you can rest assured you’ve covered all the bases to ensure occupants have the best possible outcomes should a serious incident occur.
How wide is the manufacturer’s range?
The success of a building’s design lies in how well it fulfils its purpose and suits the needs of its occupants. The same is true of the fire system that protects it.
For example, schools frequently require provisions for ‘lockdown’ or ‘invacuation’ to ensure pupil safety from a range of outside threats. Checking that a particular fire system can easily accommodate this requirement is sensible, as your overall solution is more likely to be well implemented by installation companies if the equipment is quick and easy to fit and has a proven track record.
Similarly, if your building is likely to be occupied by people with hearing impairment, it is important to check that your chosen system accommodates visual alarm devices and paging options for full DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliance.
Furthermore, evacuation alert systems are now a best practice requirement in tall residential buildings to aid the safe management of occupant evacuation in fire situations. The BS 8629 code of practice provides detailed guidance on these types of systems.
It is well worth checking with manufacturers how they can tackle each of these important areas – whether they have their own solutions for each or require integration with third-party equipment for full protection.
On a practical level, the quality of your specification will affect the quality of the installation and how effective it is at safeguarding lives. Choosing a fire equipment manufacturer that offers a wide range of options ensures compatibility of each part, confident and competent installation and successful outcomes for all.
In conclusion, the success of any fire system and the level of safety it affords to those it protects are directly linked to the quality of the original specification. Building knowledge and understanding of what various fire system manufacturers’ equipment can and cannot do is a crucial step in ensuring occupant safety. Manufacturers are a deep mine of valuable information for specifiers to explore. By working together, we can avoid common pitfalls and create a safer future.