Who should lead the race to fire and security systems integration?
Who should lead the race to fire and security systems integration?

Mar 1, 1998 12:00 PM

Systems integration was introduced two decades ago as the key to the "smart building." In terms of building management - tying together the supervision of HVAC machinery - systems integration has become an accepted solution. But the broad area of building or facility security integration - comprising systems such as access, intrusion detection, fire alarm/life safety and CCTV, as well as video badging, intercom, paging and sound - is only now being considered seriously. An integrated system, the argument goes, will surely provide even more protection than the sum of its parts and could be supervised by a minimum of contract security personnel.

The technology is here Today's technology for integrating systems is the best it has ever been. For example, computers are much more sophisticated, while data communication and communication protocols between systems are vastly improved. The infrastructure of an integrated system has migrated from hardware/hardwire to microprocessor-based. The potential now exists for combining independent subsystems into a seamless supersystem to interrelate and monitor, or even supervise and control, the security needs of the largest facilities. So, who will take responsibility? Many users wish to deal with a sole-source vendor who will accept responsibility for the security/life safety system, including long-term service and upgrades. But to date, no industry segment has demonstrated the ability to produce reliable performance.

Security industry unproved The conventional segments of the security industry, notably access control suppliers, are employing exciting technology. They are quick to adopt local and wide-area networking, wireless, graphical user interfaces and cutting-edge computer technologies. They are free to do so, because their market is not as stringently controlled by the restriction of Underwriters Laboratories Inc., and because building codes are less often enforced in the security industry. Reliability can be a question.

Independent integrators A few years ago, the logical approach seemed to be independent systems integrators - the kind of group that might be called on to install a networked computer system. But in practice, systems integration proved too complex for a small group to manage. Software was written that was not truly compatible with the subsystems it governed. The system was put together, but not optimally.

Building management integration Another possibility, security integration with HVAC/building management, proved impractical. The HVAC area is electro-mechanical, with its own standards for reliability and no particular synergy with security/life safety functions. Building operators in large facilities must devote their full time to their own building systems, which are complex.

Enter the fire alarm/life safety industry Until recently, the fire alarm/life safety industry has taken a back seat in the systems integration game. This is partly because the structure of building codes and standards tends to limit flexibility, and partly because of the innate conservatism brought on by the tremendous level of responsibility connected with fire alarms and life safety. Now, however, the industry is making its entrance into the arena of systems integration. The intent of the life safety industry is to introduce larger-scale solutions that involve varied security systems put together in a seamless fashion, with a greater sense of critical operation and a closer understanding of the intricacies of operator interface. New technologies will be adopted from a consideration of what is necessary and reliable.

Considering the complexity A system that is meaningfully integrated, rather than simply interfaced, involves complex communications interrelations. For example, during a fire, the alarm system needs to communicate with the access system to release doors for fire fighters to enter. The alarm system should also communicate with the CCTV network, so cameras in the involved area turn toward the fire, allowing security personnel to assess its severity. The intrusion detection system needs to communicate with the CCTV network, directing a camera in the area to cover and record the door as the intruder enters. In addition, an optimum method of system interfacing must be considered. In order to integrate fire alarm/life safety, the graphical user interface must accommodate complex control functions such as listing of detector sensitivity, thresholds and other analog data. In another example, connecting systems through the serial data port is not the optimal solution. The serial data port is usually an ancillary function, designed to interface with a printer in a one-direction mode. This is known among operators as "send and pray," because it doesn't always function as intended. Data being transmitted between critical systems may never arrive, and there's no feedback to alert the system to the loss. For interconnecting critical systems, the fire alarm/life safety industry uses a foreign systems interface - a reliable communication interface. In addition, a data-checking function is provided, so that if any data that is sent out fails to be received, the system automatically asks for it to be sent again. In sum, relays and printer port jacking cannot be considered integration. For meaningful interrelations to happen, systems, and the hardware and software platforms that are fundamental parts of the systems, must be designed to work with each other through a knowledgeable integration.

Integrated but independent Critical to the new concept of systems integration is the mandate that all systems, no matter how closely integrated, must remain independent. Regardless of what happens to the interconnect or to other systems in the integration, each system must also be able to stand alone - and perform its own specific functions - at need. This is a concept that the fire alarm industry knows well; indeed, it is a cornerstone of the life safety industry.

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