How disruptive innovation could push fire alarm into the future

Around three decades ago, the fire alarm industry made its last great technological leap forward with the introduction of the signaling line circuit (SLC). The possibilities of addressable devices and an “intelligent” panel seemed to augur a technological revolution in fire protection.

Unfortunately, that promise has largely been left unfulfilled. Advancements like air sampling, multi-criteria detectors and IP monitoring have provided worthwhile optimizations, but little has changed fundamentally. In essence, the fire alarm control panel remains more or less the same device it was thirty years ago, when the World Wide Web was not yet introduced, and cellular phones were shaped like bricks.

Technological growth in the time since has rendered the world nearly unrecognizable. Why then has fire alarm changed so little?

It certainly hasn’t been for lack of potential interest. In adjacent industries, such as building security, technological advancements have been numerous and fruitful. The video surveillance standard has progressed from analog cameras to IP based digital ones, equipped with AI and analytics to detect trouble and respond proactively without user intervention.

If the eager adoption of these technologies is any indication, building owners and facilities managers are as hungry for integration as anyone. What if, after decades of relative stagnation, the fire alarm led the push toward an integrated, automated building?

The idea sounds ludicrous at first blush, but consider the fire alarm’s biggest advantage: it is completely ubiquitous. Because of code, there are already fire alarm devices in nearly every room of every commercial building. Rather than being merely horn strobes and widgets, these devices could be hubs for integration between all of the building’s low voltage systems. They could even function as wireless access points to facilitate that integration.

Imagine a building in which occupancy sensors, temperature sensors and HVAC are all seamlessly integrated over IP using a single software platform. All these separate but related systems could communicate and work in concert with one another. They could be monitored and dynamically managed using a single smartphone application. Fire alarm is uniquely positioned to make that happen. For end users, this level of convenience would be a massive value add.

Think about that: How frequently do you derive value from your fire alarm?

Absent an actual fire, the end user’s relationship with their fire alarm is often one of ignorance at best, and inconvenience at worst. Code mandates the presence of the fire alarm, which is generally sold and installed under the oversight of contractors during construction. The end user rarely gives it a second thought until the panel needs to be replaced, costing them thousands. The price is well worth paying to ensure the safety of everyone in the building, but that hardly makes it any less unpleasant when the bill comes due.

With a pivot toward a software as a service (SaaS) model, the fire alarm industry could both realize its potential as an integrator, and alleviate the frustration of the current feast-or-famine climate. Rather than relying on a decades-long obsolescence cycle to bring in large capital purchases at unpredictable intervals, a subscription service offers steady, recurring revenue, while providing a more palatable option for customers.

Investment in R&D of new physical fire alarm devices is an exercise in diminishing returns. Manufacturers can decrease current draw, or make marginal improvements to visibility or audibility, but a horn strobe is a horn strobe is a horn strobe.

Investment in software development, on the other hand, could allow for a whole gamut of low voltage system integrations, while also improving or further customizing functionality of current fire alarm hardware. Furthermore, when third party manufacturers inevitably wish to support integration between their devices and the software platform, they could be charged a nominal licensing fee, providing yet another stable revenue stream.

This proposal represents a radical change in a generally slow-moving industry and would not come without friction. Manufacturers with decades of experience in the field are likely to be hesitant to take on such a massive recalibration.

But soon they may have no other choice. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from this era of rampant technological growth, but perhaps the most crucial is that progress is inevitable. No technology is immune to disruptive innovation, no matter how long stalwart defenders of the old world hold out.

It is a simple matter of demand; end users will not continue settling for technology in their workplaces that lags far behind technology in their homes. Sooner or later, someone will take the steps necessary to support a fully integrated, automated building. The only question is: will it be fire alarm, or will software developers reap the rewards in yet another industry?

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Chris Wilhelm has been with Tech Electronics since 1998 and was named the Executive Director of Construction in 2004. His duties include overseeing all construction projects in the St. Louis area as well as directing all construction strategy and marketing at all nine regional Tech Electronics offices. In addition to his construction market duties, he is also responsible for overseeing all fire alarm projects, including managing the relationship with Tech’s fire alarm system manufacturers. Due to his vast expertise in fire alarm code, Chris presents across the United States for various audiences including manufactures, AHJs, engineers, contractors, fire inspectors, state fire marshals, and building owners.

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