Technology is always evolving, and fire alarm systems are no exception. The ability to detect and communicate fire alarms has improved significantly since the first fire alarm signal was sent via telegram in 1852, enhancing fire safety for businesses exponentially. The newest generation of fire alarms is that of voice evacuation systems, an alternative so well-received that it is occasionally required by state and municipal fire code. Knowing the difference between conventional fire alarm systems and voice evacuation technology is vital when considering what option works best in your business for protecting lives and livelihoods.
Fire alarm systems
A traditional commercial fire alarm system is designed to notify both the employees onsite and a designated monitoring center of any potential fire event. Devices such as smoke and heat detectors are installed throughout the facility to detect early signs of fire and report to fire-rated alarm systems. Upon receiving a fire alarm signal, the system’s control panel activates flashing strobes and blaring horns throughout the building to initiate an evacuation. Additionally, the panel transmits a signal to a monitoring center, whose operators immediately dispatch emergency services to the site. If an emergency arises before any of the detection devices pick up on it, a person can pull down on a hand pull to activate the fire alarm and trigger an evacuation.
Commercial fire alarm systems are required by law and their design is at least partly influenced by local and national fire alarm codes. Because of this, a great deal of planning goes into designing a traditional fire alarm system. The system must be designed so that every occupant of the building, no matter where they are, can hear and/or see the system activating in the event of an alarm. This standard of performance is often called “intelligibility.”
A well-designed, fully-functioning fire alarm system is highly effective at triggering an evacuation in the event of a fire, but it is decidedly unhelpful when it comes to trying to alert people to how to evacuate. For instance:
- If a fire occurs in the lobby of a building, it’s likely that at least some people will head toward the fire while trying to escape;
- The system lacks a method for alerting people to the kind of non-fire related emergency;
- People perceive false alarms to be more common than actual alarm events, so many occupants of a building do not take evacuation procedures seriously when an alarm does go off.
Traditional fire alarm systems have provided businesses with excellent protection for decades, but there is always room for improvement. In recent years, the traditional “sights and sounds” approach to fire alarms has been challenged by a more intuitive and efficient alternative–the voice evacuation system.
A voice evacuation system functions similarly to a fire alarm system, with a few notable exceptions. A voice evacuation system utilizes similar field equipment—smoke and heat detectors, hand pulls, etc.—but instead of using horns and strobes to alert occupants to a fire, it annunciates the notification through speakers. Pre-recorded messages can be used, or, for facilities that have emergency personnel monitoring the site 24/7, a designated individual can announce evacuation procedures over the phone. Additionally, emergency services can use the voice evacuation system to communicate real-time emergency information upon arrival.
Voice evacuation systems are considered a category of emergency communication systems (ECS), which also include mass notification systems. A mass notification system (MNS) works similarly to voice evacuation, but instead of dealing specifically with fire alarm systems or specifically evacuating a facility, an MNS can be used for multiple purposes. In the event of a tornado, you would not want to evacuate your facility and expose occupants to severe weather. Instead, an MSN can notify everyone to the conditions and inform employees to take cover per pre-established emergency procedures. Mass notification systems can be used to notify occupants to a variety of scenarios, ranging from quarantines to active shooters.
When do I need a voice evacuation system?
Given how complex existing fire code is, whether you need a voice evacuation system in your business may be out of your hands. Stringent fire codes dictate much of where, when, and how an emergency communication system is installed. According to the International/Michigan Building Code, Voice Evacuation Systems are required to be installed in all new assembly occupancies with occupant loads of more than 1,000 people, all educational occupancies with an occupant load of more than 100, and all “high-rise” occupancies. Additionally, the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code requires voice evacuation installation in assembly occupancies with more than 300 occupants or theaters with more than one audience viewing room. In a nutshell, some businesses, often larger ones, are required by law to have a functional voice evacuation system installed before being allowed to open.
However, given the benefits of emergency communication systems over traditional fire alarm systems, many smaller businesses have decided to make the switch to an ECS. Having a voice alert occupants to a real emergency reduces the risk of people thinking the event is “just a drill.” The ability to pre-record messages on mass notification systems for various scenarios allows for more efficient handling of emergency procedures that extend beyond evacuation. And switching from a traditional fire alarm system to a voice evacuation system can often be done using many of the existing components on up-to-date fire alarm systems.
Constructing a traditional fire alarm system is a complex balance of fire code compliance and designing comprehensive protection for your business. Because a functional alarm system is vital in the protection of both your facilities and the lives of your employees, choosing what kind of system works best for your needs is just as important as deciding who is going to help you design and install your system. For your fire alarm and voice evacuation system needs, consider EPS Security, Michigan’s largest family-owned security provider. Our consultants, engineers, and technicians have been rigorously trained to implement the knowledge we’ve accrued as West Michigan’s leading provider of fire alarm systems for 65 years. Don’t leave your livelihood in the hands of anyone less than the best. Choose EPS Security as your strategic life safety partner and discover the difference more than six decades of alarm system experience provides.