Choosing an Alarm Management System for my facility

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Choosing an Alarm Management System for my facility

June 17, 2017 by AmericanFLS

Some fire alarm system manufacturers also provide proprietary software solutions for alarm management. At the same time, some third party software vendors who are not affiliated with any equipment manufacturer offer alarm management solutions. In addition, some may consider using fire alarm monitoring services from alarm monitoring companies for alarm management.

In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of alarm management solutions from these different sources.

Fire Alarm Monitoring Services are off the table for Alarm Management

Some may think the fire alarm monitoring services from alarm monitoring companies will take care of alarm management for their facilities. Well hold on to that thought.

Most facilities use commercial fire alarm monitoring services to monitor fire alarms. Alarm monitoring companies’ objective is to monitor and notify. When they receive a fire alarm, they follow escalation protocols to notify the property owner, facilities management or the fire/police department. However because they monitor fire alarms from their remote central monitoring stations, they do not have incident commanders on the ground to assess emergency situations. As a result, they cannot go further than monitor and notify. Although their services is useful and it is certainly better than having nobody monitoring the fire alarms, fire alarm monitoring services can only provide minimal protection.

For many large, complex and critical sites, they need more than the minimum. They need their own incident command staff to assess emergencies on the ground and manage the fallout of incidents. In addition, it makes more sense financially to maintain their own facility staff for the doing year round fire alarm device testing and maintenance. Our article on “which facilities need an Alarm Management Systems” has an in depth analysis on this subject.

Therefore fire alarm monitoring services cannot be a replacement for alarm management, especially for large, complex and critical sites.

Using fire alarm monitoring software from a fire alarm system manufacturer for alarm management

Many fire alarm system manufacturers also provide their own alarm management solution as part of their own fire alarm monitoring system. There are certain advantages of using software systems from the same manufacturer. However alternative alarm management systems from independent software vendors often deliver critical capabilities that are unavailable in the equipment manufacturer’s solution.

“alternative alarm management systems from independent software vendors often deliver critical capabilities that are unavailable in the equipment manufacturer’s solution”

Advantages:

  • Most manufacturers provide services from engineers certified by the manufacturers to configure and implement data in the system. This may translate to some level assurance for some organizations.
  • The systems may come with set procedures for testing fire alarm devices and handling fire alarm situations. This can be helpful for some customers who are looking for guidance for setting up their alarm management practice.

Disadvantages:

  • The equipment manufacturer’s system may not provide all the capabilities needed for the facilities. For example, a customer may like to have multiple web based graphical displays showing alarm locations and all related information throughout the site, but the equipment manufacturer’s software does not have that feature.
  • Most manufacturers require their certified engineers to configure and make all changes to the systems. This locks customers into using their services. They must use the manufacturer’s certified engineers even for the slightest changes in the system.
  • High service costs for setting up the system initially and ongoing maintenance for the system.
  • Any system customization required to satisfy the customers’ operating environment will have to involve using the manufacturer’s services. This further increases the set up and maintenance cost. See the section on customization later for examples of customization considerations.

Using an alarm management system made by an independent software vendor

Advantages:

  • For specific features the customers would like their alarm management system to have (like a web based graphical display that shows alarm locations and all related information in multiple locations) if the equipment manufacturer does not support those features, the customers can shop around and select an independent software vendor who provides those features.
  • Many software vendors provide training to the customer so they have the option to use their own staff or services from the software vendor for the initial setup and ongoing maintenance. This gives the customer more options for controlling their finances.
  • Relatively low service cost.
  • Most independent software vendors also provide set procedures for testing fire alarm devices and alarm management. In addition, some of them have built-in capabilities for customers to customize the system so it can adapt to the customers’ specific environment. See the section on customization later for examples of customization considerations.
  • For sites that are using older fire alarm systems whose manufacturers do not make alarm management systems, going with independent software vendors gives the customers the option to modernize their fire alarm testing and monitoring operations without upgrading the fire alarm systems.

Disadvantages:

  • When considering using an independent software provider, the customer should check if the independent software vendor has reputable reference implementations to back up their claims.

Customization Considerations

When adding an alarm management system to your operations, you may want to consider the following software customization so the system can work better in your environment. These customization are necessary whether the customer selects to use the software from the same equipment manufacturer or from an independent software vendor. As explained above, the difference is really in the associated service cost in implementing these customization.

Incident management

Many facilities departments follow good management practices to ensure proper handling of fire alarm incidents and other facilities related incidents. For fire alarm incidents, the handling staff should record all relevant information about the incident and reported all follow up activities for remedying the incident. The purpose of these good management practices is to ensure accountability, safety and risks are managed. For fire related incidents, local fire codes require proper reporting and follow ups.

Many organizations would like to integrate alarm management systems with an incident tracking system. This way when in a fire alarm situation, the system automatically creates an incident with all relevant information and triggers and tracks the appropriate follow up procedures. Such integration saves manual data entry work that otherwise would have to be done separately. Manual data entry is error prone and this integration eliminates these possible errors.

Different organizations handle incidents differently. Therefore it is inevitable that some customization of the alarm management system will be needed so it can interface with an existing or new incident tracking system.

Importing of device data and facility map

Organizations likely have different formats for keeping their fire alarm device data and facility map drawings. While some organizations may use Microsoft Excel for device data and AutoCAD for facilities map drawings, other may have their device data on paper and PDF for facilities map drawings.

In order to implement an alarm management system, data needs to be imported into the system. Some customization of the system may be necessary in order for it to successfully import the data.

Automatic formatting of test log data into the format required by local fire codes

Per local fire code requirements, fire alarm device test logs needs to be in certain formats. Many organizations would like to customize their  alarm management systems so test log data coming from the system are in the required format.

Alarm notification policy

In a fire alarm situation, an alarm management system must notify the incident command staff immediately. But the ways the notifications should be sent out may vary in different organizations. In most cases, some customization of the alarm management system configuration is necessary.

For some organizations, just showing the fire alarm message in one console computer would be enough. Some organizations may prefer a more robust notification procedure. For example, they may require sending emails and SMS messages to the incident commander’s phone. They may also require multiple consoles in different locations around the site so all relevant facilities personnel can see the graphical displays and be aware of the alarms.

Remote access

Many organizations would like to have their alarm management system to securely allow access to remote users. This way, in an alarm situation, facilities personnel at home will be able to access the system, be aware of the alarm and assist with the handling of situation.

Some customization in the alarm management system is likely needed in order to set up the necessary internet connection, user access and network configuration.

Conclusion

In conclusion, fire alarm monitoring services from alarm monitoring companies is not solution for alarm management. This leaves us with alarm management solutions provided by the fire alarm system manufacturer or other third party software vendors. While the equipment manufacturer’s own software solutions seem to provide higher assurance, solutions from independent software vendors often provide the same or more functionality at a much lower cost for both the initial set and ongoing maintenance.