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How Do Commercial Fire Alarm Systems Work for Commercial Buildings

How Do Commercial Fire Alarm Systems Work for Commercial Buildings
How Do Commercial Fire Alarm Systems Work for Commercial Buildings

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  • ISO 9001:2015
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Commercial buildings and workplaces must have a fire alarm system or alternative fire detection system in place to raise an alert if the facility needs to be evacuated and identify any security or safety threats, including fire and smoke. There are multiple options and system structures, but the purpose remains to protect anybody on site and detect and mitigate the severity of a fire in an emergency.

Fire alarm systems in commercial premises will normally include smoke and heat detectors and fire alarm call points. They can have evacuation alerts, extinguishers and sprinklers alongside 24/7 fire alarm monitoring. But how do commercial fire alarms work? In this article we review how commercial fire alarm systems work and discuss every factor of fire alarm usage, from compliance and fire assessments, to design, installation and maintenance. 

Commercial Fire Alarm Compliance

Firstly, why do businesses need fire alarms? The specific rules, regulations, and legislation applicable vary between buildings and businesses. Still, any commercial organisation must comply with fire safety regulations because even a small fire can cause significant damage and potential risk to life. We’ve written a full article on UK Fire alarm regulations here

What is the function of a fire alarm system?

Fully functioning fire alarm systems with advanced detection hardware provide multiple benefits:

  • Detecting a fire as soon as a blaze breaks out can significantly affect the outcome. It allows for a quick evacuation, alerting the fire service immediately and containing the fire before it becomes critical.
  • Fire alarm monitoring services assist with early detection and protect property and people by initiating an emergency response – whether alerting site managers and trained fire responders or contacting the nearest fire department.
  • Many of the health hazards associated with fires relate to smoke inhalation – an urgent evacuation system can reduce the risk of smoke damage to the building and to anybody on site being unaware of the fire until they are exposed to smoke.

The more responsive and accurate your fire alarm system is, the less the potential for personal harm, as well as the associated costs of repairs should a fire cause damage. 

Using a low-standard fire alarm system is a false economy because it is unlikely to safeguard the structure of the building and its assets, and most importantly of all, those people working in or visiting the site.

Fire alarm monitoring is a good example of a preventative measure – although this comes with a service charge, the benefit of having a trained fire response team on hand to liaise with the emergency services if a fire occurs outside of opening hours can be business-critical.

The first step: Conducting Fire Risk Assessments for Commercial Premises

Choosing the right commercial fire alarm system starts with a professional fire risk assessment, a key requirement for fire health and safety and fire regulations.

Employers are legally required to have an active, up-to-date fire risk assessment in place that identifies core fire risks and ways to remove or reduce the potential for a fire. Any employer with over five staff must have this as a stored document for staff training.

There are several rules regarding the review of fire risk assessments and the measures in place:

  • Any fire risk assessment needs to be reviewed every year.
  • Fire officers should conduct a new risk assessment every five years.
  • If the layout, purpose or any aspect of the building changes, a fresh fire inspection is required.

Businesses must also conduct a new fire risk assessment if any other changes to the building or use affect the relevance of the previous evaluation, such as employing more staff or installing new equipment or facilities that carry a fire risk.

Types of Commercial Fire Alarm Systems

Conventional fire alarms have call points that cover zones, with each zone represented by a warning on a control panel. One zone might be the floor of a building, a separate work area, or a room.

When a call point is activated, the control panel records the alert, displays a flashing LED to highlight the zone, and sounds an alarm. If the alarm system is connected to an alarm response centre or the emergency services, they will receive an alert.

Addressable Commercial Fire Alarms

An addressable fire system works similarly to conventional fire alarms. It is more accurate because the control panel identifies the specific call point from which the alarm has originated – not just the zone.

It is possible to incorporate additional features, such as an automatically activated sprinkler or a water detector that identifies when a sprinkler has been activated.

Clearway fire sprinklers

Analogue-Addressable Fire Alarm Systems for Commercial Properties

Analogue-addressable systems are more advanced and vary considerably depending on the type of building and how the system raises alarms or communicates alerts.

For example, the control panel can assess whether the alarm is a genuine emergency, a connectivity fault somewhere in the system, or an alarm test. Each detector within the system examines the environment to identify what has caused the alert.

One of the benefits of a more technological fire alarm system is that it can prevent evacuations or emergency responses in the event of a false alarm.

However, fire safety officers must still advise the fire department or their monitoring service if they plan to run a scheduled test to avoid any confusion.

Commercial Fire Alarm System Design

UK fire alarms must be built to BS 5839, which stipulates the standards required, and is essential for insurance purposes.

Businesses and site managers are responsible for selecting an appropriate fire detection and warning system to meet all relevant safety standards and protect the building and the people within it. The right system design will vary between individual offices, large commercial centres, and other working environments such as building sites.

The installation of a fire alarm system is also as important as the detection equipment and monitoring because any alarms fitted inaccurately may be inadequate or not fit for purpose.

When designing your fire alarm systems, you should consider the following:

  • Property size – fire alarms must cover all parts of the premise, so the larger the building, the more call points, alarm units and zones are required.
  • Complexity – higher-risk properties such as factories, manufacturing plants or high-heat premises may need more advanced fire and heat detection assets than a lower-risk building such as an office.
  • Maintenance – almost half of all fire alarm callouts are false, and battery-operated alarms frequently fail to respond to a real alert. Well-maintained fire alarm systems are essential and required to remain compliant with fire safety legislation.

Malfunctioning fire alarms can have disastrous consequences, from invalidating your insurance, failing to raise a response to a fire before it has caused severe damage, causing serious harm or even fatalities, and exposing you to prosecution through the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and the Fire Safety Order 2005.

commercial fire systems

The Components of a Fire Alarm System

Advanced fire alarm systems can comprise multiple components, features and communication tools, many of which can be adapted to your premise’s specific risks and layout. Standard components found within most commercial fire alarms include:

  • The control panel, where fire wardens can activate alarms during testing, identify the zone a fire alarm is coming from, and where signals are sent to and from devices within the building.
  • Manual call points, often a ‘break-glass’ call point or a lever which activates an alarm when pulled.
  • Visual alarms that display a flashing light, and audible alarms that sound when a fire is detected, or a call point is triggered.

While all fire alarm systems should include a device or system that detects fire and smoke, these can vary considerably. Options include heat detectors, air quality analysers called ionisation smoke detectors that recognise particles in the air, and carbon monoxide detectors.

Photoelectric detectors use light beams to determine when smoke is present, and hybrid detectors operate as dual ionisation and photoelectric sensors.

Advanced Features of a High-Response Fire Alarm System

Annunciators are panels that display information about activities within the fire alarm system, such as alerts recorded by each fire and smoke detector.

A power supply unit is often essential for businesses where there is the potential for the mains electricity to become disconnected or malfunction during an emergency. A backup power source keeps components running, including alarms, emergency lighting, sprinklers and fire suppression equipment.

Finally, you can install a fire alarm system with an Emergency Control Function Interface, or ECFI. While it sounds complex, this interface links the fire alarms and monitoring service to all of the other facilities and amenities within a building.

Sites that cover multiple floors, have escalators and lifts, and emergency access control protocols may need an ECFI to automate actions like shutting off lifts when an alarm is activated, closing fire doors immediately, deactivating air conditioning and triggering sprinklers.

Clearway Fire Alarm maintenance services

Factors to Consider When Installing a Commercial Fire Alarm System

There are several areas to review when installing a fire alarm system, such as the nature of your business, the hazards present, the needs and mobility of site users and how you will monitor and respond to fire alarms that sound outside of working hours.

These factors should form part of the risk assessment process we’ve discussed. Still, you may also need to compare varied functionalities and system features that will improve your system’s effectiveness, reducing organisational risks.

One of the best possible solutions is to fit a fully integrated system where alarms and detectors communicate with the following:

  • Sprinklers and gas suppressants
  • Lighting systems and emergency evacuation systems
  • Air conditioning and smoke control assets
  • CCTV cameras and intruder alarms
  • Building management systems and access controls

Integrated fire alarm systems are often more cost-effective than monitoring and maintaining multiple standalone systems.

Alarm monitoring responders can use an integrated system to identify whether an alarm is genuine, determine where the issue is originating, record the incident and share detailed information with responders or the emergency services.

Scheduling Fire Alarm System Maintenance

All fire alarms should be properly maintained, where call points, audible alarms, and automatic devices are tested regularly – assuring you that they will function as expected should a real-life emergency occur.

Businesses must keep fire logs and records of tests to comply with their responsibilities. In most cases, alarms should be tested once a week, with other device features checked and tested monthly, depending on your business sector and the applicable regulations.

It is also essential that a qualified engineer or technician completes maintenance visits and servicing, where they can conduct a complete inspection of all fire alarm system devices and connections and confirm that the system has been professionally serviced.

Security maintenance services from Clearway

The Importance of Ongoing Fire Alarm Monitoring

A fire alarm is only as effective as your response. It is worryingly common for alarms to be disregarded, where they are assumed to be false. Our NSI Gold II accredited Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC) is on standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and can respond swiftly when a fire alarm sounds or any issue is logged.

The process works by transmitting an alert to our secure facility when any activity occurs. A trained responder reviews the alert, investigates the cause, and takes action as outlined in your emergency response protocols.

That could involve deactivating a false alarm, instigating a complete evacuation of the building, communicating with business managers and anybody on-site, liaising with the emergency services, and providing instructions throughout to ensure the premise is vacated and the situation responded to as an emergency.

Other Considerations When Comparing Commercial Fire Alarm Systems

While having the most advanced alarm system possible is always preferable, it is also important you think about the cost of your system while ensuring you have fire detection and prevention systems that incorporate the latest technologies.

A high-quality fire alarm system reduces risk by a greater margin than a system with outdated features or that is incompatible with other building management systems.

Our fire risk control specialists are available to advise on the features that will make the biggest real-world impact on your risk profile and provide the highest level of protection for your workforce, assets and building – without spending more than necessary on controls that aren’t relevant to your business.

It is strongly advisable you contact an experienced fire safety contractor to assess your property and recommend the right solutions if you are in any doubt.

As an ISO 9001:2015 accredited fire alarm provider, with BAFE SP203-1 approval, Clearway provides a complete range of precision-engineered fire alarms suited to any property or business layout.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do All UK Businesses Require a Fire Alarm System?

In short, yes – every commercial enterprise should have an appropriate method of detecting the presence of a fire and activating an alarm to protect the safety of everybody on-site. While some aspects might be subject to your discretion, you are responsible for implementing sufficient controls, detection equipment and alarms as a business owner.

What Is the Advantage of Using a Professional Fire Alarm Monitoring Service?

Alarm monitoring means that alarms are transmitted to our Alarm Receiving Centre, irrespective of the day or time the alert is activated. Skilled emergency responders investigate the cause, ensure emergency response times are expedited, and liaise with all stakeholders until the emergency has been dealt with.

How Often Should a Business Replace or Update Its Fire Alarm Systems?

There isn’t one correct answer because a lot depends on the risks present on your premises and how well your alarm system can manage those risks. As a rough guide, a fire alarm system should last at least a decade, provided you have regular maintenance and servicing and replace any components with a limited lifespan.

Gavin Upton

Gavin Upton

Sales Director - Clearway: Fire & Security

Solution focused consultative approach aligned to clients strategic and operational road map.

Gavin has had notable successes in delivering solutions for a broad range of large complex clients from both NFE and NFN pipelines.
Extensive knowledge of all three sectors and multiple verticals including Financial Services, Retail, FMCG, Utilities, Healthcare, Automotive and Leisure/Hospitality. His focus is on delivering innovation, growth and retention through providing outsource solutions that deliver cross business benefits whilst utilising technology whether in-situ or new initiatives.

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