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Extinguishing Fire Safety Problems

LAST SEPTEMBER, Halloween preparations at Mountain View Middle School in Goffstown, New Hampshire, could have taken a frightful turn when a scarecrow was leaned up against a wall, blocking a fire extinguisher. Had a fire broken out when the extinguisher was hidden and inaccessible, the children’s lives could have been at risk. Fortunately, the school had recently installed a system designed to detect such problems. It sent a warning signal to the school’s security officials, alerting them to the obstruction. Staff quickly moved the scarecrow, leaving the extinguisher at the ready for a real emergency.

Fire extinguishers are among the safety devices most likely to be moved, vandalized, or accidentally set off. Sometimes people thoughtlessly use them as door props or for other nonsafety purposes.

Mountain View school was selected for installation of MIJA Inc.’s en.Gauge electronic monitoring system as part of the Safe & Secure Schools Project initiated by the National Association of State Fire Marshals, which looks at life safety, protection of property, and continuity of operations in schools. New Hampshire State Fire Marshal Bill Degnan had seen enough problems with the old extinguishers to seriously consider installation of the new system in area schools.

Mountain View didn’t have any major problems with pranksters, but the school was glad to serve as a proving ground for the new system because the technology would reduce the amount of maintenance and inspections needed to keep the extinguishers fit for emergency use, says Vice Principal Fred Deppe.

“We used to have to send a custodian around to check all extinguishers on a regular basis. This system eliminates the need for that, plus the annual inspection,” he says.

The en.Gauge is an active-monitoring technology installed in the wall underneath the extinguishers; it ensures that portable units are always in place, pressurized, and accessible. “It increases the reliability of the extinguishers, [and] it reduces vandalism,” says Degnan.

The system’s main technology is a small programmable switch underneath the extinguisher that is powered by a ninevolt battery attached to a sensor interface module (SIM). The battery is connected to the system via a tether stretching from an electronically monitored gauge. The gauge in turn connects to an obstruction detector that is wirelessly connected to a building panel, or wired back to the main building security panel.

The SIM uses ultrasonics to check, every 15 hours, if there are any objects obstructing the extinguisher. If the SIM trips, it checks again in five hours. Four positive reads for an obstruction results in a signal sent to the security panel. That prompts a check of the extinguisher at the location pinpointed by the system.

The 35 hours that pass before the alarm is set off may seem like a long time—until one considers that extinguishers inspected manually once a month according to national fire code can potentially be obstructed for up to 30 days. John McSheffrey, vice president of business development at MIJA, says the 35-hour time lapse allows for unexpected, temporary contingencies, such as a laundry cart parked in front of a unit, a painting crew covering up part of the wall including the extinguisher, or a plant placed in the way.

Other anomalies can trigger the alarm. If the firefighting unit is removed from its mounting bracket or hanger, the electronic tether disconnects, and the alarm sounds. Likewise, an extinguisher’s pressure is monitored every 15 hours, or about 50 pressure checks per month. If a unit is removed and then reconnected to the system, the SIM sends a signal when it is taken off the wall, then automatically conducts a pressure test when it is put back.

A triggered alarm will chirp until someone attends to it and dials in the proper codes to shut it off. A digital readout gives the location of the extinguisher in question.

The Mountain View Middle School, with a student body of 1,000, has 48 en.Gauge-monitored extinguishers of about five pounds each, along with four wireless control units. Vice Principal Deppe says the units only took a couple of days to install. Training custodians and secretaries on how to work the system took a mere 15 minutes, he notes. The system is hooked up to a security panel in the secretaries’ offices.

Deppe initially feared that the en.Gauge system would be too sensitive, resulting in constant alarms. In fact, there have been about a dozen false alarms in the six months the system has adorned the walls of Mountain View. But Deppe says the incidents were caused by two or three troublesome units that required modifications or adjustments to sensors.

Apart from these isolated cases, Deppe says, the lack of hands-on maintenance of the en.Gauge is one of its best attributes. The International Fire Code already stipulates that electronically monitored extinguishers only have to be examined every three years. The National Fire Protection Association’s code, which comes up for a vote in June 2006, will state that the special units do not require monthly inspections.

Fire Marshal Degnan says that he would recommend the electronically monitored extinguishers for any public building, including town halls, schools, state office buildings, or any place of assembly. Those types of facilities have a lot of turnover, and fire extinguishers can get moved or damaged without anyone noticing, says Degnan.

This is the first device that can “increase the reliability of the extinguishers,” he says, ensuring that “they are there when you need them.”

(For more information: John McSheffrey, MIJA Inc.; phone: 781/616-0544; e-mail:[email protected])

Robert Elliott is an assistant editor with Security Management.