A fire starts in the server room on the 13th floor of an office building. Within minutes smoke detectors get a whiff of the danger and the fire alarm sounds, triggering a full evacuation. The sprinkler system kicks in as the fire rages into the corridors. Firefighters arrive at the scene and rush into the building, following old blueprints, job experience, and natural instincts to locate the fire, putting their lives on the line to extinguish the flames and search for any remaining building occupants. This is how our traditional “dumb” buildings respond to a fire.
In our future smart buildings, however, the response to fire promises to be very different. Advanced sensor networks can recognize a fire much sooner and understand its potential spread, HVAC configurations change automatically to help control the blaze, occupancy analytics can locate anyone trapped in the building, while digital twins can provide first responders with real-time information to support emergency response efforts. The future smart building may not be able to stop all fires from starting but by drawing from all available data, it can support firefighters, save lives, and reduce the damage to assets.
Much of the technology required to create such systems already exists. Smoke detectors are being replaced with much more effective heat sensors that can recognize fires quicker and decipher false positives more accurately. HVAC and other building systems are increasingly automated and controllable. Digital twins are being adopted for construction and maintenance applications, and a range of occupancy analytics solutions already allow buildings to locate occupants. As is so often the case with smart buildings, the barrier holding back the development of valuable applications is the limited integration of various building systems.
“One of the biggest challenges that we see in the smart building environment is protocols or topologies for how one system talks to another,” says Rodger Reiswig, Fellow and VP of Industrial Relations at Johnson Controls. “The fire alarm system uses a certain protocol or language. The HVAC system uses another protocol or language. Creating an environment where systems can talk to one another and not just send, but also receive information – that is the difficult part. Everybody can send information out. It’s easy for me to tell you what is happening in a system. But for you to tell me what is happening in your system and then expect me to do something with that information, that’s when it gets a little bit harder.”
Despite these barriers, several providers have launched solutions that attempt to bring us closer to that smart fire safety future. Toronto-based BehrTech, for example, has developed their MyThings Wireless IoT platform to provide disaster support by monitoring fire detection equipment but also monitors extreme weather and even seismic data for earthquake response. While, just last month, Honeywell introduced its Connected Life Safety Services (CLSS) cloud platform that connects to an IoT gateway to allow first responders to access data from across the building. CLSS transmits data on the location of active alarms and a history of detector signals over the previous 24 hours, in order to support efforts to respond to the situation.
“Smart fire IoT platforms like CLSS indicate precisely where an emergency is occurring and will enable firefighters to take the right equipment to the correct location. When the dispatch sends a fire truck, the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system will provide an access code that the officer in the truck can punch into an application; that will bring up a 2D model of the building and place the exact location of the alarm,” said Sameer Agrawal, general manager of software and services at Honeywell. “You're able to track your crews that way, so this really is the kind of information that's going to make their jobs so much safer and more efficient and take all the guesswork out of it.”
Despite their technological evolution, buildings are still protective structures providing shelter to occupants. There is, therefore, no more important role for a building than to keep its occupants safe and no more important time for safety than during a disaster, such as a fire. Keeping this priority in mind, building owners and managers must reassess the integration of building systems and how they could be brought together to better support occupant safety during fires and other dangerous situations. While the value of disaster protection may be less than other applications, the cost of an old unconnected response now appears dangerous, making disaster preparedness a strong motivator for better building connectivity.
“Smart building is all about connectivity, to let the building talk,” says Thomas Dols, Global Software Product Manager at Siemens Smart Infrastructure. “We live in a digital age full of continuous information where performance is constantly improved with the help of data and interactions with smart interfaces enable us to make intelligent decisions. This drive for constant optimization lies at the heart of smart buildings whose very purpose is to enhance the user experience. The requirements when selecting a fire safety equipment is, therefore, to have a connected software product offering within the portfolio.”