Skip to content

Fast Track to Fire Safety

Racetracks and casinos have something in common: They both serve patrons who enjoy playing the odds and putting their money on the line. But no one wants to gamble when it comes to fire safety. That’s why Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs, Arkansas, has revamped its fire system to ensure that it is doing all it can to protect guests, staff, and property in case of a fire or emergency.

Oaklawn is more than a hundred years old, and it has a longtime reputation for excellence in racing. It has hosted such prestigious races as the Arkansas Derby, and well-known horses like Smarty Jones and Zenyatta have taken their chances on the Oaklawn track.

About ten years ago, Oaklawn joined the ranks of racetracks installing gaming machines, creating a combination entertainment venue called a “racino.” The machines were such a success that a few years ago, the track embarked on a multimillion dollar expansion to update the current gaming area and add another 53,000-square-foot building to the facility. The addition includes various gaming machines, poker tables, and a restaurant.

Management saw the project as an opportunity to upgrade the racetrack’s old fire system and to modernize protocols both in the new building and renovated areas. At the same time, alarms in the nonrenovated areas could be connected to the new fire monitoring equipment.

The previous system, which was decades old, consisted of pull stations and smoke and duct detectors (which detect smoke in the air ducts), monitored by a third-party. When an alarm went off, there was no way for in-house personnel to immediately assess the validity of the alert—cameras weren’t tied in—nor were ventilation systems automatically set to cut off oxygen and contain any smoke.

This wasn’t the most effective way to manage alarms, says Jim Slade, Oaklawn’s director of surveillance.

Additionally, the old system did not meet the fire and building codes for the new building, says Slade. Some of the additions necessary for compliance included the integration of the fire system with the air-handling and access control systems.

The Selection Process

Initially, Oaklawn relied on the architecture firm that was designing the new building and renovation to plan the fire alarm system as well. Then, Slade says the electrical contractor Oaklawn was working with recommended Advanced Cabling Systems to refine the design and implement the fire system. Advanced Cabling joined the project in March 2008.

The E3 from Gamewell FCI, a division of Honeywell, was chosen to fulfill the objectives of the plan. The fire alarm/mass notification combination system consists of smoke detectors, heat detectors, duct detectors, a voice evacuation system, local operator consoles, and the ability to do emergency announcements via microphone or automatic announcements, according to Ron Hicks, senior vice president of Advanced Cabling.

The system includes a local operator console, which has a graphic annunciator connected to the fire system. The graphic annunciator is used to pinpoint exactly where a fire alarm is going off. It also includes a mass notification system.


There were flaws in the original design drawn up by the architecture firm, so Advanced Cabling and Oaklawn made some changes. For instance, the original design called for only a few strategically placed speakers throughout the facility, but for that to work, the speakers would have to be very loud (at 105 dBA, specifically). Such a high volume would have been impossible to attain, according to Hicks. So the plans had to be altered to include more speakers.

Other design issues arose when Oaklawn modified the layout of the facility during the renovation. These changes were made as the facility managers learned that certain types of gaming were proving more popular. In those cases, for example, Slade says “if we have a particular bank of machines that is extremely popular, well, then it is going to be noisier in that area. So we have to actually increase the volume of the alarms so that people can hear.” The alarm system installers had to be flexible and adjust their plans to accommodate the project’s evolutionary development, which they did.


The prior fire system was a standalone system. A major design feature of the new system is that it is integrated with Oaklawn’s other building systems, including access control and air-handling. That means that the magnetic door locks can be programmed to unlock in the event of a fire alarm, for example, to let patrons out and fire personnel in.

Integration of the air-handling system means the air conditioning system shuts down the air conditioners when smoke is detected. That ensures that the fire will not be fed by oxygen nor will the ventilation system spread smoke throughout the building.

The system uses relay logic to accomplish those interactions, according to Michael Kennedy, president of Advanced Cabling. “It’s programming that says, ‘if this happens, make sure this happens.’ So it’s all written in the programming of the fire alarm system,” explains Kennedy.

The system is not directly tied into the surveillance system (comprising Pelco Endura IP cameras) but the graphic annunciator helps operators pinpoint exactly where the alarm is. They can then pull up the corresponding cameras and see what’s going on or send people to help out in the area. Slade says he has designed databases that allow staff to match up the alarm codes with the cameras that are closest. The system includes 350 cameras in the new area and about 125 more in the area with the older fire system, says Hicks.

Slade would have liked a fire system that was completely integrated with surveillance cameras and perhaps pulled the screens up automatically, but he says that was out of Oaklawn’s price range. However, he adds, “we may not have the Cadillac, but I think that we are doing a lot of stuff that will almost make us look like we’re driving a Cadillac,” such as the use of the graphic annunciator and the databases.


Apart from the demands of having the design plans change midstream, installers also faced a few other challenges. One was that numerous people, from plumbers to general contractors, were all working onsite. “The gaming area is a small space and you had 10 different trades all in there at one time. All on lifts, and all taking up space, and all needed to be in the same ceiling space, or in the same floor space. And you just couldn’t get around everybody,” says Hicks.

But the biggest challenge was that the final implementation and gearing up of the new system had to be essentially done in one night, because the facility could not open without fire protection. Although the new alarms and pull stations were already in place, the old copper wires and even some structural pieces holding the wires from the other system had to be taken down and the new fiber had to be put in, and everything had to be up and running by 11 o’clock the next morning. The crew pulled an all-nighter to get everything in place and tested, explains Hicks.

The new fire system uses fiber-optic wire, which relies on optic connections, according to the installers. In the past, there would be a multitude of copper wire going to each fire alarm panel. However, the new system allows the information to be passed digitally via fiber, so only one fiber wire is needed and the fire alarm panels are redundant in case one goes down during a fire.

“The ease of installation allows you to save time, to save money, and to be able to pass that savings onto the owner,” says Hicks. He adds that the money savings come in “installation charges. If you’re pulling one hundred [copper] wires, you’ve got a tremendous amount of labor that it takes to pull those wires. If you’re pulling one fiber between all those panels, then you have the number of hours reduced exponentially, so…I don’t have five hundred hours in a job pulling wire, I now have forty hours. And so the amount of money that you save in labor alone and wire can be passed on to the customer, allowing for a better system and a lower dollar.”

In the areas where the old hard-wired fire alarm system is still being used, such as the grandstand, Hicks says that Gamewell multiple input modules have been used to tie the alarms to the new system. The old wires have been connected to the modules, which transfer the information digitally to the surveillance monitoring room. 

The surveillance department can monitor both the old and new systems this way, but Slade says it’s a bit more difficult to pinpoint where alarms are when they are in the older areas. “It gives us a zone, basically…the only way to really go back and check that is to send people to the area to investigate. If we happen to have cameras in those areas, we’ll pull those up first, of course, but it will basically only give us a zone to go check.”


One of the biggest changes accompanying the new system was a policy decision to take the monitoring back from the third party and do it in-house. This change came several months after the new system was installed, and it was facilitated by the fact that the new fire system would be easier to monitor because of the graphic annunciator. Prior to the renovation, surveillance and fire were completely separate standalone units. 

Surveillance is “here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, holidays, and everything else,” says Slade. Once that system was joined with the fire-safety system, it “just actually made economical sense” to turn monitoring over to the surveillance team, he says. The in-house staff now gets trained specifically on those new duties.

When the new system was installed last year, the third-party company still monitored it. But with the addition of the graphic annunciator to the local operator console in the surveillance room in January, Oaklawn was able to take over.

Now Slade says that surveillance personnel can assess the situation quickly in the event of an alarm and prevent the fire department from coming all the way out if they realize that the alarm is false.

The in-house assessment also means a faster response in the event of a real fire. “As we were going through and doing our testing, that’s when we noticed that it was taking about three to five minutes for the [third party] alarm center to contact us in the surveillance room to tell us that there was actually an alarm,” says Slade.

By contrast, with the new system, staff has the ability to automatically pinpoint an alarm and respond quickly, which means that a small fire might be contained before it spreads. Those early moments are critical, he notes, because, by some estimates, a fire doubles in size every minute, so if it takes five minutes to receive notification, plus whatever time it takes to respond, that can make a tremendous difference in the amount of damage that is sustained.

The in-house alarm monitoring has also streamlined maintenance. For example, if a smoke detector sets off a false alarm, surveillance personnel can alert staff to examine it for problems and repair or replace equipment as needed. With the old system, if a smoke detector malfunctioned, says Slade, “we’d have to wait for the alarm company to come out and replace that smoke detector…so that particular smoke detector may have been down for several hours as opposed to being down for about 10 minutes.”

The system is also programmed to alert employees if there are any problems. For example, the installers say that false alarms can be kept down by setting a certain “obscuration” threshold for the alarms. That essentially sends out an alert if the alarm gets too dirty.

Mass Notification

One of the major reasons that Oaklawn chose this technology is its mass notification capability. Slade wanted a system where the message could be tailored to the specific incident and where words, rather than just a warning siren, could convey the importance of the message.

“It’s kind of like, you walk through a parking lot, you hear a car alarm going off, you don’t even turn and look at it anymore. Well, the thing is that if somebody came on the intercom or a reported message says ‘this is an actual threat, please leave the building immediately,’ they will do it,” says Slade. He adds, “I would like to get it to where when the initial [alarm] goes off, that it states that we have detected a problem, we’re investigating the problem. And then if it is an actual threat, we can push that button that says, ‘Yes, let’s evacuate the building.’”

The annunciator can be used to make live messages or to send out prerecorded messages. That’s a huge improvement over a simple siren that can only signal people to leave. In that case, notes Slade, you end up “evacuating when you don’t need to, or you will not be evacuating when you actually should.”

Mass notification is extremely important, agrees Hicks. He adds that the National Fire Protection Association devotes a section of its requirements to mass notification (which it refers to as emergency communications systems).


Fire safety isn’t only about technology. Upon installing the new system, various additional responsibilities for different jobs at Oaklawn were added into the fire policies. For example, people dealing with money are to suspend transactions when an alarm goes off, and security personnel are to staff exits and halt escalators. There are also protocols for what to do when each type of alarm goes off.

After the system was installed, Slade says the facility was planning a drill, but it got a real-life false alarm to deal with instead. A water-pressure alarm alerted surveillance to a change in water pressure, and the fire alarms and mass notification system went off. The gaming area was evacuated in about three minutes.

The pressure change, related to an issue with the city’s water supply, was not a danger to Oaklawn. But the incident drove home the benefits of having a customized mass notification announcement telling everyone on the property that personnel are investigating the alarm, rather than evacuating the facility.

Fire protocols are especially important in the stables where the horses are kept. Oaklawn has a detailed fire prevention program for the stable area, which includes a prohibition on smoking, ensuring that fire hydrants are visible, and promptly disposing of used hay.

 Oaklawn has taken strides to ensure the safety of its patrons and employees by updating its fire alarm system, integrating it with other aspects of the facility, and taking over the operations on its own. Slade is already satisfied with the improvements on the system. That the facility has improved the odds of fire safety well into the future is now a safe bet.