PA/VA systems: A work in progress

EN54 has been the source of much confusion and consternation over the years, but after 5 years are we starting to see some clarity out in the marketplace? Paul Milligan finds out.

Like all new legislation, the EN54 standard for fire detection and fire alarm systems (primarily parts 16 and 24 relating to voice alarms) has been hotly disputed and debated.  Five years on from its inception, one thing which can be agreed on is that it was needed.  

“EN54 regulation is a good move for everybody in the business, but especially for the people who are in a building at a time of emergency,” says Sascha Riedling, business analyst and controller, IC Audio.  “On the standards side, it has many positive effects, it forces every stage of the market to provide quality – from the manufacturers to provide quality products, but also to the integrators who have to provide a quality installation”.  

We shouldn’t really been surprised by EN54 in the AV world says Wolfgang Pein, director, TOA Electronics Europe, after all standards form part of our everyday life.  “It’s only in the audio world that standards are new, we are surrounded by them in our daily life – coins, doors, paper etc they all follow standards. If you want to bring a banana to Europe there is a standard.  Here we are talking about rescuing people’s lives, so why is there no (worldwide) standard?”   

As highlighted by Pein, one problem with EN54 is that it is purely a European standard for use by the 28 countries in the EU.  Is the lack of a worldwide PA/VA standard providing a barrier to its adoption?  “I don’t think we’ll ever see a global standard, because the requirements are so different.  The Indian market is completely different to Europe.  The quality of a product in India doesn’t take the same key role it does in Germany.  It is a far more price sensitive market.  If you try and set up a global standard it should reach a certain quality level, which is probably in the middle.  We can’t accept a lowering of quality levels just to get other nations into the boat,” says Riedling.   

Creating a global standard is not impossible, but it doesn’t look likely in the near future, unless EN54 is adopted by the rest of the world, which isn’t outside of the realms of possibility, as it is already recognised and used in some parts of South America and the Middle East.  Having a global standard would undoubtedly be a huge benefit for manufacturers, who could build to one standard and ship products globally without any worries.  It would also be a big benefit to integrators and consultants, who work across different territories.  That is not to say regional differences are exclusively a non-European issue with voice alarm standards however, as Riedling demonstrates. 

“Poland is a key example, because you also need a separate certification of admittance (COA), which means it take more time and money to get the products right.   If you have a ceiling speaker for indoor use, EN54 says it has to have IP21 ingress protection.  For COA for the Polish market it has to be at least IP33.   So from a manufacturer point of view, these national exceptions make it more cost-intensive and is decreasing the overall speed. Which means that the development and launch of new and innovative products is also affected negatively by this surrounding conditions.”

Regional differences in how EN54 is applied further complicates matters in the market says Albert van der Hout, division manager, Hacousto. “The national standards are normally regulated by the national building codes, which means that different countries demand different levels of building safety, for example a fire zone in one country might be 500 sq metres, in another it might be 1500 sq metres. There is a big difference in how its being used across Europe.  There are countries where it is being strictly followed as a rule, and others which have adopted it, but don’t see it as a rule. You’d like to see the process harmonised of how national bodies handle it, because there is a huge difference.” 

Pre-EN54 most European countries had their own national design/applications standards such as BS in the UK, NF in France and NEM in the Netherlands.  What EN54 means (in theory anyway) that there is 1 European standard which sits above whatever national standards are in place.

PA/VA system at Hala Widowiskowo Sportowa sports complex

Another problem causing big differences in what EN54 really means out in the field is financial.  “In countries where there are economic problems you often see the minimum solution.  When we do seminars we always have a lawyer present to talk about responsibilities.  In case of an accident you will be asked in court ‘is there a standard, why did you not follow it?’  You can’t save €10k if 10 people are going to die as a result,” says Pein.  The majority of people we spoke to also mentioned regional differences in attitude to EN54 compliance.  “I would guess it’s between 80-85% of projects are done with EN54 tenders in Germany.  Southern European countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal have been very slow to implement it, and EN54 projects are very low,” says Riedling.

One significant change to EN54 adoption across Europe came in July 2013 when CPD (Construction Products Directive) became CPR (Construction Products Regulation). This change has forced national legislative bodies to implement the directive itself more effectively.   This was also a signal to countries which had been slow to implement EN54 to start doing so in greater numbers.  

When it first came out there was a lot of confusion about EN54, from manufacturers and integrators alike, is this still the case? Yes says Diego Velazquez, sales and marketing manager, LDA Audiotech, highlighting perfectly the need for it to be adhered to correctly. “Unfortunately many become more conscious about it after a fatal incident has arisen in which a robust PA/VA system was not installed in a venue.” Others we spoke to thought the message of EN54 has got across, simply that some countries needed to do more in monitoring strict adherence.

One recent opinion piece on voice alarm systems argued there were too many vested interests in those charged with drawing up EN54 standards, is that a valid criticism? It’s a tricky issue admits van der Hout, and not an easy one to solve either. “There is always a commercial aspect involved in it.  I sit on one of the standards panel, but I am not independent, I run a business.   Who is independent? Are consultants truly independent? Maybe we should have people from the fire brigade or government departments involved?  To get independent people you need to find sponsors because those people won’t do it for free. In this industry every standard is drawn up by a group of people with a common interest.”

One area of concern with voice alarm systems was a potential gap between those designing systems and those installing systems, is this something that is being felt out in the market? Yes was the common reply.  “There are installers with years of knowledge of audio and others who just know how to fit speakers on a wall. As a manufacturer you have to provide training, but companies also need technical and acoustic training,” says van der Hout.  Velazquez agreed there was sometimes a gap, but that this was being addressed by those in charge of the standard, by creating a new technical specification (CEN TS54-32), which is a specific guide for installers to properly install PA/VA systems.  

One historic criticism by sceptics of EN54 was that it was merely an expensive box to tick for everybody involved, rather than forming an essential part of a project.  Can we still say this? Maybe says Velazquez, “It’s absolutely essential for a manufacturer, but for projects sometimes EN54 is demanded simply to tick a box.”

EN54 is far from perfect, it doesn’t involve any regulations on active loudspeakers, and it will have to address the growth of IP in the pro audio world very soon.   But for now its what we have to work with, and most seem happy it exists.  Unlike most audio systems the success of a voice alarm system isn’t down to an individual’s interpretation of what ‘sounds good’. 

Because of the serious nature of what it provdes, it seems entirely fitting there are standards in place to ensure people’s safety.  One thing it must do is constantly evolve and adapt to the wider AV world, as highlighted by Twan van Dijk, marketing manager EMEA Installed Audio, Bosch. “EN54 is already a very complete standard but at the same time we should realise that we are living in a changing environment: a standard is never 100% complete.”

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