When Fire Strikes

Physical security systems can assist First Responders at educational facilities

Physical security systems such as access control, video surveillance with analytics, and intrusion detection are primary security solutions at K-12 and higher education campuses that protect students, staff and assets. The roles these systems play at education facilities have further expanded to provide health-safety protections ranging from elevated body detection to face mask detection to occupancy control.

What most people tend to overlook is that they also play an important role in reinforcing life safety by providing an early warning of smoke or fire. Not only can this information improve the response times and tactics used to battle fires, but it can also help school officials and first responders formulate a plan during other critical situations.

In an emergency, seconds count and minutes matter. A reliable network infrastructure with ample bandwidth helps ensure quick access to the vast amounts of information provided by a building’s security system. The faster that information can be shared with first responders, the greater the probability of a positive outcome.

How Security Systems Aid in Life Safety

The use of security systems can shorten the response time to a fire. At a minimum, adding video surveillance to the picture allows responders to observe the unfolding situation and make informed decisions. Additionally, adding access control automates the release of secured doors and turnstiles to allow fast and free egress during an evacuation and provides an easy entrance for first responders arriving on the scene.

Video has been used for many years to detect the presence of smoke and fire even without a smoke detector. With the later addition of analytics, this technology has become even more precise. Video can now convey initial information about the incident to security teams on site, as well as provide continued updates to mobile response teams.

For example, a video-based assessment of a manual fire alarm pull station could determine that the device was initiated as a prank. An on-site security team could then stop the dispatch of the alarm, if code allows, and inform the first responders entering the area that lives are not at stake. In another example, a building’s addressable fire alarm system indicates which fire sensor has been initiated and where it is located. However, with video surveillance, responders can see the nature of the fire or emergency — the source of the smoke or flames, the size of the fire, and whether people can be seen in the vicinity of the fire. With the right technology in place, this intelligence can be shared with responders in real time. It could mean the difference between life and death.

Following the incident, the video footage provides valuable documentation that may be used to aid an investigation, improve future training of first responders, or indicate where technology upgrades are needed.

Fire alarm systems, which are governed by local, state and national codes and regulations, are often stand-alone systems. More frequently, however, they are integrated with access control systems. The access control system unlocks secured doors to allow emergency exits during a fire and can be summoned to a specific occupied floor.

In life-safety situations, an access control system must perform in the opposite manner of how it performs when used as a security system. Instead of controlling areas and floors by restricting access to only authorized people, it enables immediate egress through doors and turnstiles for all occupants who need to evacuate, regardless of their authorization level. Applicable fire codes determine the manner that this is technically accomplished by controlling power to the locks through direct wiring from the fire alarm system or a network connection. Another benefit is that the user data from an access control and visitor management system can be used to do a roll call following an evacuation.

Advantages of Integrated Systems

Whereas security and life-safety technologies, especially fire alarms, once only addressed one type of event, today their ability to be integrated makes the entire solution much more powerful. A recent trend in the security industry is transitioning from being reactive to proactive; integrated system solutions play a key role in this movement.

Integration streamlines responses. When a fire alarm initiating device is activated, the video system provides visual confirmation of the alarm. This is valuable information for on-site security personnel, school administrators and mobile first responders.

Access controls can activate a lockdown in a security incident or open secured doors for fast egress in a fire. Emergency communication systems can automatically text status updates, broadcast evacuation instructions and provide emergency meeting locations. The integration of these four systems — fire alarm, access control, video surveillance and emergency communication — results in a response that is appropriate for the specific type of emergency or fire. An integrated life-safety system delivers the tools to determine when alarms are false and minimize their negative effect, while resolving valid alarms swiftly and safely.

Today, fire alarm systems are not only integrated with video, access control, visitor management and emergency communication but also with building management systems, public address systems, weather-alert systems and even gunshot-detection systems. By leveraging these converged technologies, an integrated system addresses more life-safety applications than just fire.

In addition, an integrated life-safety system can provide cost savings by allowing a single central monitoring company or integrator to be your point of contact for all maintenance and inspections. Increased detection and surveillance, automated and incident-appropriate actions, and real-time information for first responders all work together to create a more secure environment for education facilities. Having security technologies contribute to a methodical response in a fire or other emergency is the pinnacle of how technology should be utilized in all schools today.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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