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Educated Upgrade

“INSTEAD OF HAVING a 40-story high rise, I have a single story in 40 different places.” This is how Thomas Young, special projects supervisor for the Clear Creek Independent School District, describes his fire-safety challenges. The school district, located about 20 miles outside Houston, Texas, serves 40,000 students at 49 sites consisting of 44 schools and 5 supporting facilities such as a sports stadium and a technology center. These locations are spread out over 103 miles, with some schools separated by up to 20 miles.

This geographic issue was critical when Young, who handles fire protection for the school district, began the process of upgrading the fire alarm system. The school had last upgraded its fire alarms in the early 1990s, when the system had only 22 facilities.

Young needed to replace fire alarms, pull stations, heat detectors, and duct detectors. Another goal was to connect them all through a monitoring system. That was made easier by the existence of “a robust Intranet and fiber Ethernet network,” says Young. “We could make an alarm system work on dial-up, but our network can handle much more information.”

For the upgrade, Young decided to go with NOTIFIER by Honeywell. He liked its remote monitoring capabilities, the ability to use common components, the ease of use for nonsecurity employees, and its better communication with first responders.

Remote monitoring of alarms was a critical capability for the new system. Young has an ONYXWorks workstation, which is part of the NOTIFIER system, in his office that allows him to view every alarm point in the system in real time. He can tell whether a pull station has been activated or whether a smoke detector is malfunctioning due to dirt or maintenance issues, for example. This capability improves safety at the schools and significantly increases productivity, because Young does not need to contact the school in question to see what is going on. The system can also be configured to send e-mail alerts so that issues are promptly addressed when Young is out of the office.

Each alarm is triggered on Young’s workstation and at the school in question. Fire officials are also notified.

Another key issue for Young was that the system had easily interchangeable parts. Additionally, the system could be used in the oldest facilities, which were erected in 1938 as well as in the most recent buildings put up in 2009. That gives continuity and standardization throughout. It also means that they can stock some spare parts to fill in anywhere, which allows them to respond quickly to fix damaged units.

Young also needed a system that would be easy to use by the administrators in each school. They installed a panel—either the NFS2-640 or NFS2-3030, depending on the size of the building—in the main office of each facility. Each panel displays the alarm that is triggered and provides a map to show which room the alarm is located in.

The panels have identical configurations so that administrators who move from school to school won’t have to relearn how the fire alarm system operates. Under state mandate, explains Young, schools are required to conduct fire drills once a month. Because each school has the same operational panel, there is no learning curve when staff members are reassigned.

Most schools see only the alarms for that facility; however, an exception is made for a complex called The Village. Unique within the school district, The Village includes three schools—an elementary, junior high, and high school—on one site. These schools are configured differently so that the monitors in each school are networked, allowing administrators for each building to see the alarms for all three sites.  The panel also has maps that provide guidance for firefighters responding to alarms. “Because the maps correspond to each alarm, we can give first responders a quick and immediate location,” says Young.

This is especially important because the school district’s properties span across two counties and eight municipalities. Consequently, any of nine different fire departments—eight volunteer and one professional—will have to respond depending on where the fire alarm sounds. And while Young hosts walk-throughs of the facilities for the various stations, turn over means that a firefighter could show up during an emergency and not be familiar with the building.

The upgrade began in 2008 and is ongoing. Five buildings have yet to be upgraded. The project is being phased in because of its scale. At The Village, for example, the installation included more than 700 smoke detectors, 150 pull stations, more than 100 duct detectors, and more than 50 heat detectors. These all feed into three monitoring panels at the school and also to Young’s office.

While there has been no fire to put the system to the ultimate test, the system’s ability to identify dirty or malfunctioning equipment has already helped Young save time and money. “If we have had trouble with a certain detector and the equipment is dirty, I know that without sending someone to do an inspection,” says Young. “Also, I can tell the history of the devices in that location to see if I need to address an ongoing problem.”