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07/05/2013 / Graham Lowe

More questions than answers

I’m Graham Lowe, sales director at Hochiki Europe, and I’d like to welcome you to a new series of blogs where I, along with guest bloggers, examine the issues affecting the life safety industry. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are intended to generate debate – so whether you agree or disagree, feel free to post your comments below.

For my first blog I’d like to discuss a subject that has been the cause of much consternation for those operating in the life safety industry, particularly for manufacturers of fire detection equipment.  I am referring to EN 54-23, the pan-European standard that addresses the manufacture and use of visual alarm devices (VADs).

Before I go any further I’d like to stress that I’m broadly in favour of this new standard. However, I share the concerns of some of my industry colleagues regarding its implementation and the impact it will have on the specification of fire detection systems.

For those of you who are unaware of the background to this standard, the British Standards Institute (BSI) introduced EN 54-23 in June 2010 in order to set stricter guidelines on the installation and performance requirements of VADs. Bizarrely, up until then there was no standard that determined the light output performance criteria and installation requirements for these products – a situation that often resulted in confusion, inconsistency and, some would argue, unnecessary danger.

According to Action on Hearing Loss there are around 10 million people in the UK that are deaf or hard of hearing. This represents a significant number of the overall population and it means that many people could have difficultly in hearing traditional fire alarm sounders in an emergency situation.

However, in my view the level of danger that this group of people are exposed to as a result of the use of currently available VADs is minimal. For example, I cannot recall an instance where there has been a fatality  as a result of a fire in a location where they are installed. Even if someone couldn’t see a VAD at all, if others in an office, factory floor or public space were making their way en-masse towards an emergency exit this would provide an indication that something was wrong, although this analogy cannot be relied upon in emergency situations or for lone workers.

Even so, it is clear that there needs to be some degree of standardisation and by ensuring that VADs meet certain criteria, they should be more effective. It should also be remembered that compliance is a requirement for areas of high ambient noise, such as factories, where people have to wear ear defenders to adhere to health and safety legislation.

For manufacturers, achieving the stipulated technical requirements has been problematic to say the least. Initially due to be introduced in March 2013, mandatory compliance to EN 54-23 has had to be delayed until the end of December due to the fact that very few manufacturers were able to offer compliant products to the market in time.

To assist with the implementation of EN 54-23, the Loss Prevention Certification Board (LPCB) and the Fire Industry Association (FIA) have jointly published the Code of Practice for Visual Alarm Devices used for Fire Warning (CoP0001). This provides guidance and recommendations on the planning, design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of VADs in and around buildings.

Compliant products are only permitted to emit a red or white light and are classified into three distinct categories based on their intended application – ceiling mounted devices, wall mounted devices and an open class category. The specified light output is 0.4 lumens per m2 or 0.4 Lux and manufacturers will have to ensure their VADs are tested and assessed by an EU notified body to determine coverage volume, based on the distance at which the required illumination is met.

Perhaps the biggest impact EN 54-23 is already having though is the way in which high output VADs are to be powered and controlled.  Make no mistake, they consume a lot of current to meet the required light output and manufacturers have struggled to achieve the stipulated levels, particularly using loop powered devices. In many ways existing fire detection technology is in advance of the standard because, as an industry, we have gone down the route of using loop powered low current/low output LEDs. However, due to the higher light output needed with the new VADs, they will need to be in some instances powered using remote PSU’s,  connected onto conventional radial alarm circuits and controlled by loop I/O modules, – at least for the time being.

There obviously will be financial implications  in terms of the costs associated with their use, due to the additional components that may be required. While in extreme cases this might lead to people doing all they can to restrict the use of  VADs, at the very least it will focus people’s minds about where they actually need these devices. Put simply, blanket coverage could end up costing a significant sum, something that most will want to avoid. However in all instances a comprehensive and detailed risk assessment must be carried out by a competent and qualified assessor.

EN 54-23 marks a seismic shift in the way fire detection products and systems are designed, manufactured, specified and used. Its impact will certainly be significant and while anything that enhances the protection of people should be welcomed, I believe that its introduction has created more questions than answers. What do you think?

One Comment

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  1. Tony Cooney / May 7 2013 8:57 pm

    Hello Graham. My own thoughts are that we need to be covering all areas here. Both for people who are both hearing impaired and visually impaired. A few years ago pager systems were de rigeur and seemed to offer a viable solution which worked well in conjunction with the fire alarm in a building. I personally would have thought this would be the way forward especially with the way technology is advancing. A vibrating wristband worn discreetly possibly with text would stand up well and could be handed out to anybody requiring additional warning or information. The only area this would prove problematic would be if the wearer was carrying out work where the vibration may distract them. Machinists , dentists and masseurs and card dealers spring to mind. Now that Hochiki have the FireWave as part of their fine product base perhaps this could be something worth looking at. This would offer a cost effective solution as well.

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