Douglas Krantz - Technical Writer - Describing How It Works
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What Should Anyone Look For in a Fire Alarm Panel?

Typical normal panel showing the lights, display, and easy to use buttons
When the alarms are sounding, no one has time to find the instruction manual to operate the fire alarm control panel. If using the buttons is not obvious to the normal untrained person, it's too complicated.

By Douglas Krantz

The question has been asked, "Which is the best fire alarm panel?"

A fire alarm system isn't: A fire alarm system is installed, maintained, and regulated for the building owner and the occupants.

Which one is best has less to do with the brand and more to do with its operation.

Stress Operating Conditions

Fire alarm systems are panic systems; between the immediate cause of an emergency and people wanting to know what is going on, the operator's attention is divided.

But when the alarm is sounding, operation of the fire alarm panel still requires the undivided attention by the person in charge; the panel has to be intuitive.

In determining which panel is best, it's the ease of operation by the owner or owner's representative, and by the fire department, that makes the difference.

Fire Alarm Training

In many places, through attrition, the managers and maintenance engineers of the building are continually changing jobs.

However, as far as the fire alarm system goes, the passing on of training to the replacement employees is poor, if at all. Sometimes these replacement employees haven't even been told where the fire alarm panel is located.

The reality is that these people have been authorized to run the system, but in the long run, these people have not been trained.

For the untrained replacements, in order for the fire alarm panel to be considered good, it has to be intuitive; no real training should be required.

Panel Intuitiveness

Intuitiveness and ease of operation of the fire alarm system is determined by

Fire Alarm Panel Readability

Normally, no one does anything with the fire alarm system; it's just sitting there on the wall, at the ready. There's no real opportunity for the authorized operator to become familiar with it.

However, during a panic situation, the same person still has to read the panel.

To show the operator where in the building to look for the fire, rather than having the display explain which button to press, the display should just show the fire's location - no button to press.

Having this information readily available, without making the operator figure out which button to press during a high pressure situation, saves time and confusion.

Number of Buttons to Press

To start with, the fewer the buttons, the better. More buttons means more labels to read and more decisions to make during the panic situation.

The important buttons, reset, alarm silence, and acknowledge, should be labeled as such on the button itself. These important buttons should also be larger and separated from all the other buttons.

Touch screens are great for cell phones, where the operator can concentrate on the screen. Touch screens are bad for fire alarm control panels because whoever operates the touch screen has to concentrate on the touch screen to be able to press the right button. It's hard to split one's attention between a fire that's going on and a touch screen. Remember that anyone using the fire alarm system, whether it's the owner or the firefighter, isn't going to be familiar with a touch screen... labeled buttons are easier to use.

Required Steps

To accomplish anything, when trying to operate the fire alarm panel, the ease of operation is determined by the number of required steps.

Beyond pressing the labeled buttons that say alarm silence and reset, each added step needed to silence or reset the system doubles the complexity.

Passwords and Keys

To operate the fire alarm panel, the NFPA Fire Alarm Code requires a password or key. However, as far as passwords go, if the password isn't readily available, in writing, to the authorized operator, just adding a password will stop anyone who hasn't been properly trained. Without the password, the firefighters can't even use the panel when they're trying to fight the fire.

Having a key to unlock the buttons is an alternative to requiring a password, but the key can get lost. The advantage to a key, though, is that the firefighters will usually have one in their lock box at the entry of the building.

An Example of a Poorly Designed Fire Alarm Panel

To reset this one, 2 poorly labeled buttons have to be pressed in the proper order just to allow the 4 button password to be entered.

After entering the password, another 3 poorly labeled buttons have to be pressed. And again, that's in the proper order. Any mistakes and the operator has to start over.

In this case, even for those who have been trained in its operation, this panel is almost impossible to use.

The Best Fire Alarm Panel

Keep in mind who's operating the panel. When there's a fire, it's not the manufacturer, installer, technician, or fire inspector who uses the fire alarm panel. It's the person on site at the start of the fire or the firefighter trying to put out the fire. This is the person under pressure, the person not trained, who's operating the fire alarm panel.

When thinking about which fire alarm panel is best, the untrained person is the one that needs to be considered.
Learn about how Life Safety Concerns are woven into every fire alarm system, both conventional and addressable. Get the book Make It Work - Conventional Fire Alarms. This book covers the basic building wide electronics of the Conventional Fire Alarm System, and shows how Life Safety and internal supervision affects all fire alarm systems.

Douglas Krantz -- Fire Alarm Engineering Technician, Electronic Designer, Electronic Technician, Writer

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