Comment: The role of fire detection and extinguishing systems

Chris Downing of Siemens building technologies division on why bespoke fire detection and extinguishing systems can prevent false alarms and protect patients, staff and medical equipment

Every second that something continues to burn, the greater the cost of repair and recovery. In this comment article, CHRIS DOWNING, UK extinguishing product manager for Siemens’ building technologies division, looks at why health estates managers should ensure fire detection and extinguishing systems are suited to their environment to be at their most reliable, responsive and effective.

Robust fire detection systems are vital to prevent false alarms and protect patients and equipment

“A robust fire detection system saves lives. The sooner a fire can be detected, the sooner people can be evacuated. However, with more than 90,000 false alarms received by the fire service every year from the healthcare sector, a bigger issue nowadays is avoiding false alarms and the alarm apathy they create.

“To protect the people and equipment onsite, detection and extinguishing systems need to be best suited to the particular risk.

What is the risk?

“What is likely to burn and what is going to be the signal that it is burning need to be considered to ensure the most effective system is in place. Depending on the combustible, the fire’s ‘fingerprint’ could be heat, visible flames, smoke – of varying colours – or any combination of these, and so the detector must be on the lookout for the expected fire phenomena, as well as false alarm phenomena. It is this differentiating ability that allows a detector to be both responsive and also accurate.

Off-the-shelf multi-sensor and multi-criteria detectors may not be able to tell the difference between expected phenomena, or false alarm generators, and fire phenomena and so smart solutions are needed

“For example, electrical equipment across health estates will burn with a whitish grey smoke, back-up generators with diesel with a darker smoke, and paper records with a near-invisible smoke. Optical detectors are therefore set with an appropriate parameter to be effective in this specific environment.

“Knowing what combustion products will be generated, in what quantities and how quickly, means the detection system can be tuned to the risk, minimising the likelihood of false alarms. Off-the-shelf multi-sensor and multi-criteria detectors may not be able to tell the difference between expected phenomena, or false alarm generators, and fire phenomena and so smart solutions are needed.

Detector differentiation

“While aesthetically looking very much the same as the devices from the 1980s, fire detectors have evolved greatly in the past few decades and continue to do so year on year. For health estates faced with tightening budgets, securing the investment to upgrade outdated fire safety systems and reduce the number of false alarms can seem a difficult challenge to overcome.

For health estates faced with tightening budgets, securing the investment to upgrade outdated fire safety systems and reduce the number of false alarms can seem a difficult challenge to overcome

“However, with 35% of all false alarms across the healthcare sector caused by antiquated fire protection systems, upgrading can save time, resources and potentially lives.

Sophisticated devices use advanced signal analysis (ASA) detection technology to allow optimal protection across every application and health estate managers should seek to use this technology in their fire safety systems.

Working to tight budgets, it can be hard for health estate managers to see the added value of operating an innovative, efficient system which they hopefully will never have to use

“These detectors are re-active when confronted with fire phenomena, but know to ignore false alarm stimuli, such as steam, or orchestrate a response strategy to control the risk of a false alarm, such as burnt toast. By tuning the system to the specific risk and intended occupancy/operation of each room, they are able to provide cost-effective certainty while minimising the disruption caused by false alarms.

Effective extinguishing

“While detection can mean the fire is readily identified, early deployment of an extinguishant can reduce the amount of fire damage and interruption to operations. A less-effective detection system can negatively impact the extinguishing potential, increase fire damage or conversely create unwanted bi-products of the fire, for example soot and smoke.

“Across health estates, inert gases such as pure nitrogen, make good extinguishants, as the gas displaces a large proportion of the air to put the fire out while maintaining safe gas levels for people. Systems can therefore be left in the automatic mode, thus always protecting the valuable asset, critical data or operation the equipment protected supports.

With more than 90,000 false alarms received by the fire service every year from the healthcare sector, a bigger issue nowadays is avoiding false alarms and the alarm apathy they create

“Also, by displacing so much air, inert gases flush out a great deal of the smoke and other by-products of combustion (soot, acid gases etc). However, there are synthetic agent alternatives to the inert gases that carry their own particular strengths.

Choosing a system

”Whether an inert gas, carbon dioxide, a watermist solution or chemical agent, health estate managers can work with fire consultants to base their choice on personal preferences. In addition, choices may also be made on precedent and the past, their environmental image, available storage space, and, of course, cost. Sadly such decisions are sometimes made on misinformation or outdated technology and this is where a trusted partner, with a broad technology portfolio, is invaluable.

”Working to tight budgets, it can be hard for health estate managers to see the added value of operating an innovative, efficient system which they hopefully will never have to use. By working in partnership with experts, they can be sure to implement the most appropriate option to meet their individual needs.

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