Posted March 7th, 2016 by Fire & Life Safety America

The way in which fire control panels have communicated with a central station has undergone significant changes. For more than 40 years, well recognized and commonly used plain old telephone systems (POTS) had been used for fire alarm communications. Today, however, these analog POTS are becoming obsolete and will ultimately be phased out. It’s no longer a matter of if, but rather when?

The fire protection industry has been stable for many years other than a few changes. The largest of which occurred in the early 1990s with the introduction of Signaling Line Circuits (SLC) or addressable fire alarm systems. Today, in response to the evolution of technology, the fire alarm industry is undergoing numerous changes — changes in code and old technologies with a push to decrease false alarms while increasing standards and the escalation in user expectations — are all contributing to the significant changes in the industry. With the fire alarm industry stagnant for so long, it was inevitable that major changes were on the horizon. Now that change is finally being accepted in the fire alarm industry and, is expected to continue in the years to come.

One of the major changes creating a technological shift in the fire alarm industry stems from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filing which resulted from a request made by AT&T that the FCC allow them to no longer support copper telephone lines — which the industry had relied on since the early 1980s. AT&T cited numerous reasons for the request, including losing roughly 700,000 landlines per month with POTS revenue falling $178.6 billion in 2000 to $130.8 billion in 2007. This request would transition from legacy switch network (Plain Old Telephone Service – POTS) to broadband, resulting in a major change in the fire alarm industry.

Chapter 26 of the NFPA 72 version 2010 standard helps define some of the communication methods that can be used and are rapidly replacing POTS lines. It also clearly states that there is nothing in Chapter 26 of the 2010 standard that prohibits the use of alternative communications technology. Here are some of the highlights of the standard.

  • NFPA 72 does allow for the use of alternate communications technology, including cellular or IP (Internet Protocol) for central station reporting.
  • The code requires that any alternate communications technology must provide a level of reliability and supervision consistent with the requirements listed in Chapter 10.
  • When using a single communication technology, the central station must annunciate a trouble within 5 minutes after loss of communication.
  • When using multiple communication technologies, the central station must annunciate a trouble within 24 hours after a loss of communication.

All of the above is good news as NFPA 72 specifically allows for IP and/or cellular communication with central monitoring stations, and also ensures that our modern day fire alarm systems will still have the same level of reliability and supervision that POTS has provided for over four decades.

It is very important to note that the NFPA 72 code was updated in 2013 and impacts the use of POTS lines in a fire alarm installation, as well as the supervision requirements for single or multiple path technologies. The 2013 version of NFPA 72 code includes some changes that will impact the primary and secondary POTS lines in an installation. If you have a primary POTS connection, and you’re under 2013 jurisdiction, you’re now required by the code to seek out alternative communication methods as a backup to the POTS lines. This could be a one-way private radio alarm system, a two-way RF multiplex system or any transmission means that comply with NFPA 72 version 2013, such as IP and cellular. A secondary POTS line is not permitted for multi-path communications unless there is no cellular, IP or radio available in the area. In addition, you will find that some of the supervision requirements have been changed in version 2013 of the code. Here’s a brief summary of those changes.

  • When using a single communication technology, the central station must annunciate a trouble within 60 minutes after the loss of communication.
  • When using multiple communication technologies, the central station must annunciate a trouble with 6 hours after loss of communication.

The NFPA and the industry has relied on Publically Switched Telephone Networks and POTS lines to communicate the daily tests, signals and alarm signals for years. When this technology becomes obsolete, the industry will have a widespread issue of thousands of panels potentially not being monitored; therefore, new technology needed to be adopted.

As POTS lines become more obsolete, the industry has been left to adopt new technologies that address both the thousands of panels that are currently monitored via POTS lines and new installations moving forward. Internet Protocol (IP), Managed Facilities Voice Network (MFVN) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) were three of the newly adopted technologies that are capable of replacing or mimicking POTS lines. Although these technologies were identified in the late 1990s, the industry as a whole has been slow to adopt them. One of the main concerns was the need for the same reliability as POTS lines with the redundancy that had always been a requirement of the code.

Understanding those two factors — reliability and redundancy — NFPA was able to establish that these new technologies either met or exceeded the reliability and redundancy of the outgoing POTS lines. With these newer technologies, the systems are tested at a higher frequency for the daily test rather than the 24-hour test that was required on POTS lines via Digital Alarm Communicator Transmitter (DACT). This change results in knowing if communication has been lost between the premise and the monitoring company in as early as 90 seconds.

Due to today’s fast-paced environment, users have become accustomed to and expect wireless, IP, mobility, flexibility and ease of use for any technology they use — and of course, that would include fire alarm systems. This ongoing escalation of expectations has forced changes in the manufacturing of fire alarm systems. Voice notification to all occupants, the implementation of wireless devices, and the ease of accessing information immediately from the fire alarm systems are just a few updates that have helped meet these ever-changing expectations.