Fire protection is a critical factor in the built environment. It’s literally a matter of life and death, so governments implement stringent regulations to minimise risk.

Australia does well on that score, according to Joachim Schuetz, Head of Fire Safety for Siemens Australia.

“I like it that everything is connected to safety in this country. This country really wants to protect its citizens,” Schuetz said.

Unfortunately, there’s an associated problem in that too many people in Australia accept false alarms, he noted. This interferes immensely with businesses across all industries and should not be normalised.

The struggle to remain vigilant for fire risk while minimising false alarms vexes nearly everyone, such as providers of fire detection systems, building owners and managers, and their customers and employees.

“With fire detection systems, it’s always a battle to distinguish between a real fire  and deceptive phenomena like steam, cigarette smoke, dust or cooking fumes,” Schuetz said.

Hotels, for example, offer a sensitive environment with cooking fumes, people smoking, and other deceptive phenomena.

“Eventually it becomes damaging to your reputation if you’re continually generating false alarms because someone has a shower, and the detector goes off. Then you evacuate the building for no reason, and everyone is unhappy,” Schuetz said.

False alarms can have a substantial impact beyond simple inconvenience. Cost and disruption at universities and shopping centres, for example, can be significant, and can take several hours to normalise. Industrial environments will see production setbacks starting immediately, which means money lost. In those environments, it can sometimes take days for production to be re-started, as the entire area may need sanitising and safety checks. False alarms at hospitals and medical facilities can be life-threatening.

False alarms have been such a ubiquitous problem, Schuetz noted, that the government pushed the fire brigades to reduce the number of false alarms. Queensland, for example, created their own testing scenario.

“They created a real practical test scenario called Queensland Pragmatic Cooking and Shower Test,” Schuetz said.

The test consists of a home environment with multiple deceptive phenomena.

“We installed the system in a two- or three- bedroom apartment with an open kitchen, where they cook toast and steak, and open the bathroom door and turn the shower on at maximum flow and temperature,” Schuetz said. “They’re creating all this deceptive phenomena, and they want to see that your detector acts on real fire components only.”

The fire detection system comprises several interrelated components, the most crucial of which is the actual fire detector itself. The diverse detectors throughout the building are connected to a smart fire panel.

“The fire panel can be connected to a management system on top that the security and/or facility manager have easy access to, for easy control of their fire system,” Schuetz said.

The detector is not merely a sensor that communicates data with the fire panel, but a device that can be programmed for its particular environment, and can react to the environment based on a complex parameter set that was designed to eliminate false alarms. In real time it will adapt its sensitivity dynamically to the current situation.

Detectors look for smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide, Schuetz said.

“We are looking for smoke of two different types. Dark smoke can be produced by an incomplete combustion of fuel, like from a diesel engine, and light smoke is produced by burning wood or paper, for example,” he noted.

Thermal detectors look for both a temperature increase, and/or a temperature threshold.

Detectors can be adjusted for either a clean or dirty environment, or environments with few or many deceptive phenomena.

“We don’t have to change the detector if it’s not suitable,” Schuetz said. “We just program the detector to expect a different environment.

“So the same detector can be placed in a data centre, in a very clean environment where you really want to get an alarm and respond quite fast…or you can place the same detector in a warehouse where you can also expect the diesel forklift to drive through. In this case, it is real smoke, but based on the information the detector knows it’s sitting in a warehouse, so it’s expecting a little bit of dark smoke.”

Schuetz said the technology works well and they can guarantee that the system will not produce false alarms, as long as the system is designed, installed and programmed by a trained and qualified contractor.