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Military Museum Guards Against Fire

VISITORS AT the Virginia Museum of Military Vehicles (VMMV) have plenty to admire as they weave their way among lovingly restored tanks, cargo trucks, jeeps, amphibious trucks, and armored cars from different eras and various nationalities. More than a few visitors are also struck by the security system snaking around the facility’s two cavernous buildings—and that is just the way the museum wants it.

“We do get a lot of people who ask about the system. They notice it’s pretty elaborate,” says Operations Manager Mark Sehring. “It’s pretty obvious.”

Fed up with problems the museum was encountering with an outdated security system—a mishmash of pieces of equipment from different companies put together by a vendor offering poor customer service—Sehring decided that it was time to upgrade.

Fire is the main threat to the Virginia Museum of Military Vehicles, which consists of two separate building complexes in rural Prince William County known as the “tank farm.” Constructed of wood, concrete block, and steel, the huge storage and renovation sheds measure 10,000 square feet and 5,000 square feet, respectively. The buildings also house paint shops with highly flammable contents.

The collection itself—the largest of its kind in the country—adds to the fire risk. That’s because the vehicles aren’t just display items. They are operated on a regular basis for private shows, movies, war commemorations, and other events. As a result, their batteries, which are highly flammable, are left inside. But the much-less-flammable diesel fuel in the war machines is not a danger.

Disenchanted with the old alarm network, Sehring selected an integrated fire and intrusion-detection system called NetTalon System 3000. The NetTalon system was right for the site because it allows around-the-clock, off-site monitoring of the tucked-away museum, and it can effectively canvass a large complex such as the VMMV. Sehring says it is ideal for facilities such as warehouses, schools, oil refineries, or “any larger complex where you want to monitor multiple warehouses from a central place.”

The military museum’s system, installed early in 2004, consists of some 15 heat sensors, about 20 motion detectors, about 15 contact sensors covering the rollup and double-hinge doors, and a handful of glass detectors watching the complex’s few windows. The motion detectors are placed in the hallways and in every bay area. If people crawl around on the equipment, they can be pinpointed.

There are also two thermostats, seven cameras split between the two large buildings and aimed at entrances and the main areas, and cables to connect the sensing devices to the device-interface units, which are distributed controllers that direct the interface between the control panel and the sensors. There are no smoke detectors at the museum, however, since the heavy diesel fumes from the oft-started vehicles would set them off regularly.

Rounding out the system is the software, which provides users with a graphical interface. Everything, whether tied to fire or intrusion and regardless of which building it is in, feeds back to one central control room.

“Our system is spread out between two different complexes on this property, so it’s good to be able to monitor [both systems seamlessly],” says Sehring.

The training needed to operate the system is minimal. “It’s very intuitive to understand what is happening on the graphics alone,” says Dan Colin, president of Fredericksburg, Virginia-based NetTalon. Sehring agrees, saying that once the system was installed, it required only about an hour’s worth of training time for his employees to learn to use.

In the control room, the system displays on the monitoring station’s graphic interface any alarm condition within two seconds of an activation of any of the sensors. The nature of the emergency is depicted on a representation of the facility’s floor plan. A phone call, text message, and e-mail is then put through to the VMMV officials from the NetTalon central station in New Jersey that monitors clients around the clock.

Museum authorities can then connect via Internet into the graphics display and look at the sites. The graphic-intensive screen management provides maps with icons placed approximately where they are installed in the facility. The icons change size, shape, and color based on their change in status, allowing the viewer to understand whether they are currently in alarm, trying to return to normal, or signaling trouble.

Users can click on camera icons to bring up separate windows with real-time video feeds that show whether someone has entered or exited the buildings, or is moving about the grounds. “The system shows you every single sensor and fire detector, and if anything goes off, it is precise about where,” says Sehring.

Sehring especially likes the simplicity. Diagrams and maps of the buildings are easy to interpret, he says, and the central control panel is a touch screen. On-site users can disable alarm zones during the day via two keypads located at each of the museum’s principal buildings. Sehring, the museum’s owner, and one other mechanic are authorized to access the system via a four-digit password.

The network is protected by security levels including a physical key, a software key that must be registered, standard security layers within the operating environment, and communications encryption. “It takes someone who has authority and privilege to silence or reset the system,” says Jim Byrne, chief technology officer for NetTalon.

The military museum has not had any significant incident that has put the System 3000 to the test, although there have been some near misses. A direct lightning strike on one of the buildings triggered a fire alarm. The system has also had some false alarms, such as errant birds setting off the motion sensors, but Sehring does not want to lower their sensitivity, even though he does have the adjustment option.

On one occasion about a year ago, the alarm was tripped accidentally by a person who was authorized to be on the premises. Though he had remote viewing capabilities as well, Sehring took advantage of his proximity to the museum and drove the eight miles from his home to check the area and run back through the camera footage to discover what triggered the alarm.

Because the VMMV is in a rural setting, it sometimes loses telephone service. Alarms sound when the phone service has been lost. The alarm for the telephone is distinguished from that signaling fire, however, by its sound, visual cues, and textual cues. If the link between the museum and the central monitoring station is cut for some reason, the VMMV is notified promptly of its vulnerability.

(For more information: NetTalon; phone: 877/638-8256;