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    What is a fire alarm control panel and what does it do?

    Fire alarm control panels perform a wide range of lifesaving and property-protecting functions. Some panels can activate a fire-suppression system or fire sprinklers with some having a PA (Public Address) system used in conjunction with their other functions. All panels transmit signals to first responders alerting them of the hazard. These act as the messenger between the devices that watch out for and discover the hazards (detection) and the devices that alert occupants of hazards (notification).

    Active vs. passive fire protection systems

    Fire alarm control panels are a critical piece to life-safety systems and therefore are essential to protecting homes and businesses. There are several types of fire alarm control panels that have different purposes and are used based on install/building type, code, location, etc.

    • Addressable fire alarm systems Addressable fire alarm systems give information about individual detectors which help to identify the exact location of the fire. Typically, newer construction works with addressable systems, which are a bit more intelligent. These panels are suitable for projects of any size and have more system capabilities, such as being able to locate where a connected device signal is coming from.
    • Conventional fire alarm systems – Conventional systems can only provide specific information about zones. Conventional systems tend to be lower cost, are simple to use and are ideal for smaller buildings.
    • Supporting devices – In addition to panels, a complete fire alarm system is made up of initiation or detection devices (pull stations, smoke detectors, heat detectors, etc.), notification devices (sounders, strobes, speakers or any other device that uses audible, visual or other stimuli to alert occupants of a fire or other emergency), primary power supply, and back-up power supply.

    Installation considerations

    Choosing the right type of fire alarm system for an installation requires several considerations. One must consider the layout, type and size of the facility. The needs and requirements of a school or a hospital, for example, will vary significantly from the needs of a warehouse, an airport, or a restaurant or a residential building.

    In addition, it is critical to understand code. Local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) is the organization, office or individual responsible for enforcing the code requirements and standards. They are also responsible for the approval process whether that be materials, equipment, installation methods and more.

    The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes codes and standards with the intent to minimize the risk associated with fires and other emergencies. The latest code standard to date is the NFPA 72 Code. This standard, in addition to using the mass notification system for fire alarm systems, can also be used for notifying weather and nuclear emergencies, terrorist attacks and other warnings.

    Detection, notification and power supplies

    A fire alarm control panel has many different components but is ultimately the captain of the ship. It tells devices what to do and how to act using detection, notification and power functions. These functions are known to alert, notify and keep the system running during an emergency.

    • Detection – Fire alarm control panels have detection signals that are known as conditions. These conditions are classified into three categories: alarm, trouble and supervisory. An alarm condition is the notification of a device, such as a smoke detector, that sends alerting signals to the control panel when there is an immediate threat to people or the property. If the alarm system shows an issue with any devices is known as a trouble condition and would display a trouble signal on the alarm control panel. A supervisory condition is similar to the trouble condition where an issue is present in the system and shows up as a signal on the alarm control panel as well.
    • Notification – The notification function of a fire alarm unit is to inform occupants to evacuate a building through audio and visual tactics. The alarm panel carries the notifications signals to devices, such as strobe lights or speakers, using a notification appliance circuit (NAC).
    • Power supplies – A key player in keeping the fire alarm system running is having a reliable power source. There are two ways this can be achieved, through batteries or an emergency generator. Batteries are the primary power source whereas a generator is used as a secondary or backup power supply.

    Conclusion

    A complete fire alarm control system is both complex and sophisticated and requires a multitude of considerations to ensure the installation (both the equipment and process) meet code and fit the needs of the space. It must be inspected and tested regularly to keep all fire equipment working properly. Installing a fire protection system is a tedious approach and should be taken with careful precautions to save lives and prevent damage to the building and/or property.