Saving a Life
Make a campus safer with integrated systems and software technology
- By Bob Teta
- December 01, 2019
Campuses can present a unique challenge
when designing and installing
a life-safety system. Buildings and
structures on corporate, university,
government and metropolitan campuses
are typically large and complex. Most
continue to develop throughout time, with
additional buildings added and others leveled.
Campuses are not always contiguous,
and sometimes spread throughout cities,
states and even entire countries.
Even more, communication protocols and
infrastructure between buildings and systems
may not be current, as it may have been
acceptable when a campus was first constructed
to have general local annunciation
of off-normal events in each building. That
means on-site attendants and central stations
needed to relay information in order to initiate
Integrated systems and software technology
combined with the fastest, modern highbandwidth
and high-speed communications
available, allow us to make campuses safer by
responding to off-normal activity in milliseconds.
This along with our advanced communication
infrastructures and graphical displays
make first responder actions not only fast, but
pinpoint accurate and efficient. In turn, this
saves lives and mitigates property damage.
Systems integration is a continuing goal for
many life-safety system manufacturers and
facility managers. Integrated life-safety systems
create many operational and economic
advantages. Critical incidents are not often
singly focused, meaning safety staff involved
in large-scale events are typically receiving
input from several systems simultaneously.
During these demanding emergency situations,
large amounts of seemingly conflicting
information must be processed in order
to respond appropriately and effectively.
Developing a response plan for any single
event is challenging. Processing several different
life-safety events at once can be even
more confusing, and the chosen response
plan potentially critical to the lives of those
involved. Having multiple life-safety systems
integrated into graphical systems will make
the situation clearer and the response planning
quicker and more accurate.
The more advanced commercial monitoring
systems today will provide integrated onpremises
and distributed reporting. This
gives local and remote staff the equipment
and reporting infrastructure to address conflicting
messages. For instance, the fire alarm
system is telling occupants to evacuate the
building while the shooter detection system
is issuing a shelter-in-place advisory. This is
a conflicting message that requires more
intricate planning, but many commercial
monitoring systems do not have the capabilities
to provide staff with further information
required to ensure a proper decision is made.
Integrated systems will give both textual
information and a graphical depiction of the
entire situation. If there are cameras in the
facility, these will automatically stream live
video of the area with the greatest danger and
highest priority. These features allow for more
nuanced and effective staff decision making.
The introduction of advanced sensing
technologies has certainly provided better
situational awareness, but at the same time
has made decision making more complex.
Using graphical integrated systems that provide
intuitive interfaces helps clarify the
machine-to-man translation and in turn creates
better responses to life safety threats.
Integrated System High-Speed
After it is decided that life-safety integration
will be implemented on a campus, the issue
of finding a way to make the disparate systems
communicate intelligently becomes the
challenge. System integration requires communication
standards and careful adherence
to these standards. In many cases, the solution
consists of combining several communication
methods into a cohesive communication
The dry contact input as a method of
interfacing to legacy technologies continues
to be a common approach, having the advantage
that it is simple. However, its simplicity
is also a disadvantage. The dry contact input
tells you that there is an off-normal condition
in the system but fails to pinpoint the
root cause of this event. For some system
integrations this is the only feasible option
and may have to suffice.
A more sophisticated integration would
require a more advanced design and installation,
but also provide a more precise analysis
of the emergency event. There are many viable
communication standards in the industry, and the choices continue to grow. One protocol that has been in active
development since 1987 and continues to mature with current building
technology is BACnet. BACnet is a communication protocol designed
for integrating Building Automation and Control (BAC) networks.
Although BACnet started as a protocol primarily for the monitoring
and control of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning
(HVAC) systems, it has matured into a more robust communication
standard that includes interoperability with most building systems
– including life safety. Many of the major fire, security, access
and building management system providers support BACnet as one
of their preferred protocols. In September, many life-safety companies
participated in the 20th anniversary of the PlugFest Interoperability
event held at the University of New Hampshire. Engineers
from companies such as Automated Logic, Johnson Controls and
Potter Electric Signal spent several days testing their products with
each other to validate the interoperability and proper operation in
large system environments. The real advantages with the BACnet
protocol is that it has a large industry support base, is an ISO standard
(ISO 16484-5), and is in wide use in new and legacy building/
Graphical presentation of life-safety system data and high-speed networking
are the binding elements that will make campuses safer.
These essential tools expedite the reporting of incidents and make
system information more intuitive, enabling first responders to have
controlled, fast and accurate responses. Campuses are becoming safer
by implementing the most advanced detection systems in the world.
These systems can detect minute traces of smoke, nefarious
intruders, images of activity and even the exact location of active
shooters. Campuses often experience simultaneous alarm conditions
from several systems, and this information can help identify
the root cause of the situation. However, if this information is not
processed and presented correctly, the result is an ineffective, slow
and sometimes inappropriate response.
This display is descriptive in that it clearly presents the signal status,
time, date, location and even the device type. But is this descriptive
enough for security staff on a large campus? Would a first
responder from the local fire department know exactly where this
specific IT closet is located given the information?
If, instead, the panel signal was augmented with a graphical presentation
of this data, the origin of the fire alarm signal and the location
of the IT closet would be more readily communicated. Additional
information regarding events in the surrounding area would
also be available. All these factors will impact the response plan.
Other examples of graphically-displayed data can help a first
responder more completely evaluate the situation. If there is a fire
alarm, as in the example above, the first responder can also look at all
the other sensors in the area to determine how advanced this fire may
be. If there are cameras in the area, a live-streaming video preview of
the area is given to first responders prior to sending in staff. It may
even identify building occupants that need assistance or are located
at areas of refuge awaiting support.
For single events, like a fire alarm, it may be easy to identify and
create an action plan. Perhaps the location is well known and therefore
graphics are not needed. But what if there were a gunshot detected
on campus? Systems such as Shooter Detection Systems Guardian
can integrate with Potter Electric Signal’s PotterNet integrated systems
fire alarm graphics. This additional data would most likely create
a different response to the initial fire alarm signal.
Prior to an emergency response, it is important to understand the
entire situation. This can be accomplished with systems that integrate
technologies and paint a clear picture that will elicit a more intelligent
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.