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THE THOUGHT OF INTEGRATING MULTIPLE subsystems into one supersystem can be quite intimidating. Like anything else you try to do for the first time, the


Aug 1, 2002 12:00 PM,

THE THOUGHT OF INTEGRATING MULTIPLE subsystems into one supersystem can be quite intimidating. Like anything else you try to do for the first time, the list of questions and concerns grows each time you get answers, because it reminds you of other issues that need to be addressed. Combining product offerings requires the ability to look at the whole picture and not just one system at a time. That concept stems from where the security industry was 20 to 30 years ago.

Back in the day, a fire-alarm system was a standalone entity that provided just fire detection. If the sprinkler system riser had water flowing through it, the alarm detection flow paddle inside the pipe swept up into an alarm position, and (with any luck) the fire department showed up. The same could be said about a burglar-alarm system. Its primary function was to detect an intrusion and react accordingly, and the thought of combining the two types of systems was not a priority. Some security companies even staffed two types of field technicians — burglary and fire. Fire testers were trained to check accounts and flow water through sprinkler pipes to ensure proper operation. Fire testers were not trained to deal with the more difficult burglar-alarm issues. The same could be said about security technicians, who were not expected to address fire-alarm issues. The lines were drawn and remained in place for years.


During the late ’70s, a handful of manufacturers for fire- and security-alarm control panels came up with an idea to combine the two types of systems. Now field technicians were forced to handle both sides of the fence. I remember watching the look of fear wash over the faces of many fire testers when these products were introduced. Up until then, fire testers had it easy. Twist a knob here, turn a valve there, smoke a cigarette while water flows out of a test drain, please sign here, and on to the next account. They weren’t happy when they realized it was easier for security technicians to transition to the lighter side of fire and take their place. Security technicians were relieved. The basics for fire detection and notification were the same as for security, and it was an easy service call.

One thing to keep in mind is that fire detection was limited to a few select devices. Fire-detection sensors usually consisted of a water-flow sprinkler system that included a gate valve, which was a sensor that detected when water was turned off before entering the sprinkler pipes. Also included with the sprinkler system was a postindicator valve, which is the same thing as a gate valve but detects when water is turned off at the street for the entire building. Other fire devices included heat and smoke detectors. All of those sensors were dry contact-based and easy to troubleshoot. The typical fire tester was introduced (kicking and screaming) to the more complex world of security, which required further education and training sessions. Some even had to learn how to use a volt-ohm meter.

Before the systems could be combined, manufacturers were required to address some new concerns and requirements from the National Fire Protection Association and local Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs). One requirement was that the fire-alarm system or fire-alarm signal transmissions would always have priority over other types of signals. The last thing you want to happen is for a smoke-detector message to have to wait to be transmitted because the panel is trying to send a generic status report or a violation of a door contact.

Another concern was door-access control. Many retail stores have delayed-egress doors. Those door-access devices are intended to stop someone from grabbing nearby merchandise and running out through an emergency or fire-exit door without paying for it. When the crash bar is pushed in to open the door, magnetic locks or strikes hold the door in place for several seconds while an audible horn is sounding, alerting the store employees that someone is trying to leave. After the egress delay expires, the door unlocks and opens. That type of access control tends to make AHJs nervous, especially if a fire is raging inside the building. To address that concern, security technicians can take a point of connection from a fire-alarm panel and tie it into the egress door control. When the fire-alarm panel activates in the event of a possible fire situation, the point of connection (usually a dry-contact output) will change state. That signals the door’s access control to release or disengage the magnetic locks and strikes, allowing a quick escape from the building.


Today’s market offers a wide range of devices and sensors designed to detect multiple fire scenarios that can be used in a host of applications. Although dry-contact devices are still used, they’re now integrated into a data-transmission signal loop that provides loop status and diagnostic messages. But the fun doesn’t stop there; now the industry offers other systems and applications that can be integrated into one complex system. Voice communication, informational data transfers, access controls, and closed-circuit television (CCTV) video are being combined, as well. It’s not just fire, burglar, and HVAC anymore. The reason someone would want to do this is to possibly enhance the performance and capability of each subsystem.

So what does it take to provide an integrated system? The first thing you need is a base panel that has the intelligence to combine multiple communication protocols (or multiple systems with the same protocol) and can talk to each one as a group or individually. Current technologies allow peer-to-peer communications from system to system. The only problem with those systems is that they lock you into a specific set of products that are designed under one big umbrella of operational processes. If you already have one or two subsystems, do you have to upgrade for proper integration? The answer depends on how intricate or involved you want to get.

Fire-alarm systems are still interfaced with other systems through simple dry-contact connections instead of data loop transmissions. Although simple in nature, that is actually the safest way to go if you have concerns about other systems interfering with proper operations. If the host panel or subsystems fail, the fire-alarm system will continue to detect and react normally, with only the ability to notify alarm agencies possibly being affected.

The modular approach is another option. Each system runs as a standalone with the pertinent information transmitted to the host panel. The host panel then channels the information to the intended subsystems as required. That’s a smart way to go because most AHJs are rightly concerned that one system failure may also knock out other subsystems. If the systems are kept somewhat separate, the failing system will be detected and reported, but other operations will continue to function. The same is true if the host panel fails. When the main brain shuts down, the individual systems should continue to run as though there isn’t a data tie-in with something else on the network.


When a fire-alarm system is a part of the integration, issues surrounding testing must be addressed. AHJs require full system testing when a fire-alarm system is installed to ensure proper operation. Follow-up testing is also required and may take place twice to several times a year. If changes have been made to the host panel, the integrated fire system will probably need to be tested again in case the changes inadvertently affected the fire-alarm system. Now that fire is part of the equation, the installer or field technician has to be better prepared and trained to work with the integrated system. The local jurisdictions may require that the field technicians be licensed for low-voltage electrical work. They may need to have a contractor’s license or other local licenses. They may need to be certified with the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies or the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) to work on the system. If you are in California, you may need to be listed and licensed with the California State Fire Marshal.

Another concern is the possible outbreak of wall acne. It’s one thing to have one or two user-interface panels at the front of a retail store or inside a manager’s office, but it’s quite another issue if the subsystems require individual user-interface panels for operational interactions. One user-interface panel, ideally, could display all of the integrated system messages and soft keys (like ATMs that have multiple uses for a single button depending on the menu displayed) on the front of the panel to access the operational menus. Multiple panels would need to look and operate the same to avoid end-user confusion.


With rapid breakthroughs occurring almost daily in the world of technology, newer methods of data transmissions have emerged. CCTV images are now transmitted over the Internet to various locations set up for receiving and displaying them. The archaic keypads of yesterday have been replaced with graphic-user-interface panels that use Windows-based software and touch-screen monitors. Access control systems are now managed over the Internet, where access can be granted or denied from any computer with operational rights. Reports are no longer printed and sent to a fax machine. Now the computer gathers the information, automatically transmits it over the Web, and delivers an electronic copy of the data needed for immediate display.

All of this neat stuff is available, but most people won’t embrace it. Why? They fear leaving the comfortable environment they grew up with. Some people still think DOS is just a number after uno and before tres. Some technicians cringe when they have to pull out a laptop to program or troubleshoot a system. To be able to compete in this industry, you have to bite the bullet and learn to use a PC.

Technicians are not the only folks dragging their feet. Alarm agencies are also hesitant and overly cautious. UL and Factory Mutual are just two of the many agencies that need to be convinced that the quality of the technological offerings are in the best interest of the end-user. If I were in their shoes, I would be cautious, too. The more intricate and integrated a system becomes, the more room you create for error or failure. UL requires that all integrated components be tested as a complete system. The accepted systems of today are designed to allow only one user to access the system at a time to acknowledge alarms or initiate actions from the integrated panels. If these agencies didn’t look out to enforce the design and quality of the systems, the door would be open to companies (known as trunk slammers) that design and sell products that lack data security and integrity standards. Closed architecture systems that don’t allow other product offerings for integration tend to trap the customers into their network with reduced options to expand. Do some serious research before you commit to an integrated system.

As with anything that is done in the field, the secret to success lies in the planning. Before you can do anything, you need to know exactly what the completed integrated system is supposed to provide. The facility where the system will be located will play a part in what can be either done or offered. Existing systems that will not be upgraded or replaced will need to be taken into consideration. Then you will need to decide what type of communications protocol the system will be based on. Widely respected and used, BACnet, LONWorks, Ethernet, as well as other communication protocols are available, but none has emerged as the industry standard.

Building codes, electrical codes, life safety codes, and fire codes are being rewritten and updated as needed to address these types of systems, but it takes time to approve and implement them. Keeping abreast of these changes is key to understanding what features you can offer to your customers and how to provide them without violating a rule or two. Once the system design and criteria are established, the ever-popular cattle call of possible vendors and system providers is next, in which Request for Proposals are submitted and reviewed. When proposing a system, don’t forget you need to be able to provide room for upgrades and retrofits. Requirements and wish lists will change on a regular basis, and you will need to be able to effectively address them. You should also select one central location for monitoring and controlling the system.

It’s necessary to select and train point people for each subsystem. That will reduce the flood of finger-pointing that results when something doesn’t fall into place as expected. Those key people will be members of the system-integration committee.


This is only a high-level look at the process to design and implement an integrated system. Several companies offer integration tools and controllers for these systems. Some are very good, and others think they’re good. You will need to do some research to determine the provider that’s right for you and your needs. If you’ve never been involved in this type of application, ask questions. Listen to others who have gone through the process. The lessons they learned could help you avoid some of the pitfalls that catch system designers off guard, which sometimes causes costly corrections and heated tempers.

Steve Filippini is a senior security technician with more than 20 years of experience in the security-installation industry. He can be reached at[email protected]. Thanks to Merton Bunker (RJA), Charlie Hopkins (Ultrak), Nick Martello, and Dana Andrews (Notifier) for the documentation they provided at their Life Safety Summit seminar at the NSCA show in Denver.

Who’s to Blame?

Who gets to maintain an integrated system? I have had many an argument with telephone-company technicians as to who was at fault when the alarm panel failed to communicate with the central monitoring center. I blamed their hardware, and they questioned my ability to walk and breathe at the same time. Eventually, someone has to take the hit and dispatch a field technician to prove the fault lies outside of the affected system.

The same can be said for integrated systems. If the host panel fails to respond or react to a subsystem, which component is at fault? The subsystem technician is usually dispatched first. The mind-set is that because the main system integrator is still processing messages from other systems, the fault must be with the subsystem. If the field technician can prove the integrity of the subsystem, then the host system technician needs to look into the problem. Buildings that integrate their heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system controls are also subject to these support issues. If the building’s temperature or environmental settings are incorrect, is it because the HVAC module is calling out for the wrong environment, or is it because the host system is reporting false readings and creating faulty conditions?

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