Fire alarm systems play a pivotal role in saving lives and, in many cases, limiting property damage. Transitioning your building from traditional phone service to Voice over IP (VoIP) can cause some unexpected problems, including how to handle fire alarm monitoring in a reliable manner. When dealing with older protocols, older equipment, and tight timetables, it's important to understand how the switchover can affect fire systems communications and learn ways to mitigate the various issues posed by VoIP networking.
The Problem with Leaving POTS Behind
For decades, Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) was the undisputed standard for most communications, including fire warning equipment. Nearly every building is wired for POTS, and older National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes required buildings to maintain at least one dedicated POTS line. These days, POTS usage is quickly falling by the wayside in favor of other technologies that are making use of improved Internet protocol (IP) communications.
But leaving POTS in the dust poses plenty of challenges for anyone making the switch to VoIP. Unlike analog networks that are optimized for voice communication, IP networks are optimized for data. Data compatibility issues stemming from the conversion of analog signals into digital format can prevent analog dialers on older fire alarm panels from successfully sending the correct signals to a monitoring station.
Power outages can also pose a problem for fire alarm panels reliant on VoIP. A POTS line supplies its own power and fails only when a line at the interface box is cut or when there's an outage originating with the phone company. In contrast, a power outage can interrupt modem and router equipment, taking the VoIP line with it until power is restored.
Weaknesses in VoIP
Attempts to integrate older fire alarm systems into a VoIP network often reveal weaknesses in VoIP itself:
- Errors in sampling can occur when converting analog signals into usable digital data, resulting in portions of the alarm tone information being lost.
- Hardware or software failures that prevent certain VoIP accessory devices from working can also prevent the fire alarm system from transmitting its signals.
- Internet connection instability problems caused by heavy traffic, cyber-attacks, or other uncontrollable issues can disrupt fire alarm monitoring service.
Cellular to the Rescue
Upgrading your fire alarm panel may be the easiest way to mitigate issues surrounding older panels and VoIP, but budgetary concerns may rule out such a drastic move. In the meantime, there are a number of alternatives available that resolve the above issues with VoIP.
One such alternative involves the use of cellular communications for fire alarm signal transmission. GSM communicators allow fire alarm panels to transmit signals over GSM cellular networks -- the same networks used for cell phones worldwide. This feature completely bypasses VoIP, giving you an alternative that isn't affected by the limitations of VoIP systems.
GSM communicators can be easily integrated into existing fire alarm panels, making them an inexpensive alternative when compared to a complete systems upgrade. GSM communicators are also able to transfer more data to the monitoring station, allowing fire alarm panels to communicate not only the existence of an alarm, but also detailed information on where the alarm is located. This detailed information can help firefighters mount a more effective response to fires.
According to Rodger Reiswig, Director of Industry Relations at Tyco Fire Protection Products, it can cost anywhere from $400 to $800 to have a GSM communicator professionally installed into an existing fire alarm panel. Reiswig recommends budgeting $1,000 for a complete upgrade. In comparison, a brand-new fire alarm panel may cost several thousand dollars to purchase and hundreds more in installation costs. For more information, contact a company like Fyr Fyter Inc.