Sounding the Alarm: Safety in Manufacturing Facilities

Phasing out legacy technology will silence a high number of emergency alert systems in manufacturing plants.

By Dick Bauer, vice president sales, NOTIFIER by Honeywell

Firefighters in the U.S. respond to an average of 37,910 fires at manufacturing and industrial facilities every year. Losses from these fires is estimated at 16 deaths, 273 injuries and $1.2 billion in property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Associationi.

The fires are devastating not only to the people and businesses directly affected but often to the broader supply chain and global economy. One obvious way that manufacturers can avoid costly fires is by updating their building’s alarm panels. Many have not done this in a long time, simply because their legacy systems have been sufficient. But this year, the traditional system of alarm signals, sent by copper wire from buildings to central monitoring stations and then on to emergency services, is being disrupted by new communications technologies.

Telecom carriers abandoned traditional wire-based communications systems and replaced them with cellular networks. Now, they are replacing those networks with 4G and 5G. Amid all this transition, fire alarms are often overlooked. Unless fire panels are updated, alarms that depend on legacy technology may not alert first-responders in time — or at all — and lives will be put at risk.

The bottom line is that current legacy fire alarm communicators— in everything from factories to schools — must be updated or replaced, or they won’t be able to alert a detected fire to the nearest fire monitoring station. It is incumbent upon manufacturing facility managers — and the alarm system professionals who serve them — to make sure that fire alarm connectivity is uninterrupted and that occupants and assets within those facilities are kept safe.

School Fire Offers a Lesson

This past February, a fire broke out at William Fox Elementary Schoolii. The school’s on-site alarm sounded and strobes flashed but no alarm signal ever reached the fire department. They only responded after a call from a passerby.

It turned out that the school’s fire panel had not been updated to support the 10-digit dialing requirement for local calls to include the 804 area code that serves the east-central part of Virginia. The fire destroyed the school, leaving just ashes and a charred skeleton of the building. Fortunately, no one was injured. But a fire like this could happen in almost any industrial building or manufacturing facility where a legacy alarm system has not been updated.

While no one was injured in this case, other buildings around the U.S have older fire alarms that utilize plain old telephone service (POTS) lines. POTS lines are ubiquitous throughout the nation’s landscape, but the FCC no longer requires telecom companies to maintain these lines. However, many commercial buildings in the U.S. still rely on a POTS line to communicate with the local life safety monitoring station. Not to mention, building owners may not realize certain changes may need to be made to their fire panels when switching from POTS to popular alternatives like Voice Over IP (VoIP). The widespread potential for alarms never to reach first responders is, frankly, alarming.

Many Alarms Will Go Dark After 3G Sunset

In addition to POTS lines losing support, AT&T phased out its 3G cellular service in Februaryiii of this year. T-Mobile’s Sprint and T-Mobile followed suit in June and July, and Verizon will be next to end their service this December. Major telecom carriers discontinuing 3G service presents a major public safety problem as some U.S. commercial buildings’ fire alarm panels still rely on 3G to communicate with a CMS and will no longer be supported when the technology is shut off.

The alarm industry lobbied the FCC, AT&T and T-Mobile, saying many alarm companies need more time to migrate their customers’ alarm panels to 4G and 5G, and won a brokered dealiv that allowed some alarm companies’ AT&T 3G units to roam on T-Mobile until it was sunset this past July. Therefore, it’s urgent that building owners and facility managers act now to make the necessary upgrades and avoid potential safety risks in their manufacturing plants in the future.

Manufacturers Must Be Alert to Change

Manufacturers who don’t upgrade their buildings to post-POTS/3G fire alarms will be required to rely on a costly service called fire watch. Fire watchv is 24/7 surveillance of a facility by one or more individuals who can identify and mitigate fire hazards, detect initial indications of fire, trigger an alarm and notify first responders. This service usually costs $50-100 per hourvi per person, which makes it an expensive option for building operators.

The phaseout of POTS and 3G will ring in a new era of digitized alarms, but it will leave many alarm systems without support. It is urgent for building operators to upgrade their fire alarm panels to prevent the avoidable disasters that damage over 37,910vii manufacturing and industrial facilities every year.

Dick Bauer is vice president sales at NOTIFIER by Honeywell.

i NFPA, Fire in Industrial or Manufacturing Properties, Richard Campbell, April 2018 [Accessed November 14, 2022] 

ii WRIC, Surveillance video shows William Fox Elementary School fire from within, Olivia Jaquith, February 16, 2022 [Accessed November 14, 2022]

iii FCC, Plan Ahead for Phase Out of 3G Cellular Networks and Service, October 28, 2021 [Accessed November 14, 2022]

iv Security InfoWatch, Alarm industry granted temporary workaround for AT&T 3G sunset, February 23, 2022 [Accessed November 14, 2022]

v HFM Magazine, Defining a fire watch for NFPA compliance, Frank Rudilosso, October 19, 2020 [Accessed November 14, 2022]

vi Breaking 911, What is a Fire Watch and How Much Does it Cost, February 23, 2022 [Accessed November 14, 2022]

vii NFPA, Fire in Industrial or Manufacturing Properties, Richard Campbell, April 2018 [Accessed November 14, 2022]

The post Sounding the Alarm: Safety in Manufacturing Facilities appeared first on Industry Today.

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