Fire fighting

AUTHOR: Inavate

UK based E-Mech recently installed a groundbreaking alarm system in fire stations across a region in the UK. Anna Mitchell visited Brighton’s Preston Circus Station to see the install in action.

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service was looking for a maintenance provider when it started discussions with design and installation consultancy, E-Mech. The organisation, headquartered in Eastbourne, UK wanted someone to maintain its callout system, used to alert stations across the region in the South East of England.

James Eade, director of E-Mech, said as soon as he saw the callout system in place, he knew he could offer much, much more. He proposed a solution based on prerecorded audio files, stored locally at each fire station, but controlled, monitored and maintained remotely at the Eastbourne headquarters.

“When the fire service called us in to discuss its callout systems it was having trouble with reliability,” began Eade. E-Mech told the fire service it could provide a solution that would allow it to diagnose problems remotely and integrate everything back into the Eastbourne headquarters.

“First line maintenance from Eastbourne was very important to them because it meant they could reduce their maintenance contract,” added Eade.

“We designed the pilot system around BSS Audio Soundweb Blu 16s and Crown CTs 600 amplifiers. We let them straight test it for a while and then took feedback,” said Eade.

Following a successful two month trial in Eastbourne, E-Mech started to roll out the system to all stations in East Sussex, installing five in the first year.

Eade said the rollout was fairly painless but explained that they did run into a few problems. “Not all the stations had the same MODAS (Mobile Data System) Turnout unit, some had an old one, some had a new one”. MODAS enables firefighters to access information such as key locations and potential hazards, usually in the vehicle. A Firecoder, in each station decodes turn out infomation from MODAS into usable signals and messages.

“The methods for interfacing to the Firecoder varied. To solve the problem we custom built a logic processing unit. This is a black box that sits in the rack and interfaces the logic from the Firecoder to the Soundweb,” continued Eade.

Now, Eastbourne HQ can dial in to the local systems and diagnose first line faults. The local systems will also report back to the call-out and control centres so HQ can take appropriate action. Faults are also flagged up when the control centre has to send a call-out to a station. Operators are immediately alerted allowing them to use alternative means, for example telephone or radio, to contact the station. It is critical that this system works given the imperative nature of most call-outs so E-Mech followed some “voice alarmesque” protocols. Eade said: “Everything is fault monitored, so if there is a fault it gets flagged back, that includes the speaker line monitoring. So if there are any cable faults, within reason they’ll get detected.

“Voice alarm standards don’t cover this kind of installation because it’s not used to evacuate people but in principle it is the same. We’ve decided it should follow those principles – so the systems are backed up with UPSs. It’s not a redundant system, that’s the only bit that doesn’t apply because HQ has other back up methods, such as telephoning or radioing the station.”

When an emergency call is received, staff at HQ decide which station needs to be alerted and which appliances need to be called out.

“Take Preston Circus Station, in Brighton, for example. The appliances are coded Echo04, Whiskey04 and Hotel04 (the hydraulic platform). The soundstore itself has got all the permutations stored as .wav files on it. So imagine you want all the appliances to be called out at the same time, you don’t want 30 seconds of Echo called out, followed by 30 seconds of Whiskey, followed by 30 seconds of Hotel.

“We’ve amalgamated the soundfiles and covered every possible combination. The call-out is automatically dealt with, so when the control centre at Eastbourne receives a call from a hospital with a large fire, they know that two appliances, plus a hydraulic platform need to be sent. They select the three appliances, press the go button and those three triggers come down to the fire station. The appropriate soundtrack is called up and played out.”

Eade added: “We looked at having a central audio system to pipe audio across a WAN but couldn’t guarantee the quality of service for that to work reliability. This is why we chose to use sound stores and individual systems. HQ effectively has a VPN (virtual private network) in each station, which allows it to control systems over the network and monitor them remotely.”

E-Mech used existing cabling at the stations and, wherever possible, existing speakers. “Only about three stations so far have needed speakers and where they have we mostly installed JBL Control contractor 24CTs”.

Eade says it’s not the firefighters’ job to understand the equipment it just has to work for them. “The only thing the firefighters need to operate is a single button on the paging microphones we custom built for the install.”

Firefighters simply push a single button while talking into the paging microphone. In the evening “night service” is operated, so when the microphone is used the outside speakers do not work. If a firefighter needs to override this function they simply double push the button.

It was necessary for E-Mech to custom build the paging microphones and logic processing units due to the unusual nature of the install. “This project involved a lot of electronics,” said Eade. “These things just don’t exist on the shelf.”

Now all stations are equipped with the new system, Eade says East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is very pleased with its performance. “The next step is to try and roll this system out to fire stations throughout the country,” he concludes.