The era of “smart buildings” is here, bringing new opportunities for significant gains in efficiency, safety and environmental protection. In an interview, Rodger Reiswig, director of industry relations at Johnson Controls Global Fire Protection Products, offers his insights into the impact of smart buildings on fire detection and what it means for organisations planning new facilities.

Q: How do you define smart buildings?

The term “smart buildings” means different things to different people. For some, it’s all about the Green Initiative. Is the building able to sustain itself or reduce its carbon footprint? Can they reuse some of their water or generate electricity from onsite solar cells or wind turbines?

Another definition of “smart buildings” is based on sensors. Is the building smart enough to know that, if I’m the first person there in the morning and I swipe my card, it should switch the HVAC system into occupied mode? Can it start to turn the lights on? Can it adjust the window shades to allow the sun to come in? Can it call the elevator down for me because it knows that I’m in the lobby and I’m going to the tenth floor?

It’s all about how the systems integrate with one another, not just providing information to each other, but also interacting with one another, causing things to happen from one system to another.

Q: How close are we to the vision of an integrated intelligent building where all the systems work together?

We’ve already been doing some integration for a few years now with things like HVAC and lighting. Now we’re seeing tighter integration where, for example, we can use the position of the sun to get the best impact of sunlight to start to heat the building in the winter.

One of the biggest challenges that we see in the smart building environment is protocols or topologies for how one system talks to another.

The fire alarm system uses a certain protocol or language. The HVAC system uses another protocol or language, and so on.

Creating an environment where systems can talk to one another and not just send, but also receive information – that’s the difficult part. Everybody can send information out. It’s easy for me to tell you what is happening in a system.

But for you to tell me what’s happening in your system and then expect me to do something with that information, that’s when it gets a little bit harder.

Q: What makes system-to-system communication challenging?

Because of the critical role they play in protecting lives and property, life safety systems require a level of reliability and resilience far beyond that of other building systems or networks. Therefore, we have to be extremely careful about how we allow information from other systems to come into the life safety system, in case that information should affect the performance of the system.

In addition, the design and specification of life safety systems is guided via three different means: building codes, standards and listings. Each of those means is controlled by different organisations. Any proposed changes to life safety networks have to pass muster with those entities, and that takes time, effort and consensus-building.

When we’re talking specifically about system-to-system communication, the listing entities, organisations like UL and FM Global, regulate how much information can come into any life safety system. The listing documents require that there be some type of a barrier or gateway to prevent unauthorised or corrupted information from coming into a fire alarm system, causing harm or causing it to lock up.

Design and specification of life safety systems is guided via three different means: building codes, standards and listings
Life safety systems require a level of reliability and resilience far beyond that of other building systems or networks

We will see all building technologies become more integrated over time as we work through the different entities and people begin to realise the benefits of improved safety, lower environmental impact, and reduced costs.

Q: How will fire detection systems benefit from other sensor information available in a building?

One of the things being explored is occupancy sensors that tell where people are located in a building. Some type of telemetry could be used to understand where people are concentrated in a facility and, based on that, make the fire alarm system more or less sensitive to smoke. If a lot of people are congregating in one area, there might be more activity and more dust being stirred up.

You could use that information to set different alarm parameters compared to, for example, an empty building with no significant air movement. We see that type of operation happening. Knowing how many people are in a building and where they are located is also a critically valuable piece of information for first responders.

Here’s another example: let’s say we have a big parking garage next to a mall. Cars come in, and perhaps some people leave their cars running, or the cars aren’t operating as efficiently as they should be. You could have carbon monoxide detectors and occupancy sensors in the garage, and when the garage becomes crowded and carbon monoxide levels start to rise a bit, you could tell the fire alarm system not to go into alarm, but instead to turn fans on to get some fresh air moving throughout the building. It’s performing a life safety function, but at a non-emergency level.

Q: Are you involved in any cross-industry standard-setting organisations to enable better communication among building systems?

On an industry level, Johnson Controls is very active in the development of codes and standards. We have people who sit on committees for things like healthcare occupancy standards. We have engineers that contribute to product listing documents. We have people who participate in committees that determine how products should be installed and maintained.Fire alarm systems could be used to detect and solve non-emergencies before they become threats

We’re even involved with groups, like the National Disabilities Rights Network, that advocate for laws that promote equal access and notification of life safety events. The list goes on.

It’s a common protocol that allows all types of systems to get on the same communication platform and be able to send and possibly receive information, depending on the product and the type of system it is.Just to give you an example, there’s a standard called BACnet, Building Automation Control Network, which was developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

BACnet is based on entities, so within their system, they need to define what each entity is. What is a thermostat? What is a variable air box? What is a lighting controller? What is a fire alarm smoke detector? We work closely with this organisation to create entities that can reside on their infrastructure so that, for example, the lightning system recognises what a smoke detector is when they send that entity out to the network. It’s one of the most important methods we are using to communicate among dissimilar systems.

Johnson Controls are asking the question why can't an elevator be used in fire safety?
Integrated systems mean elevators could be used to evacuate people in an emergency

We’re working on two fronts: internally and industry-wide. We’re developing third-party interfaces that enable an outside entity to sign a non-disclosure form and get the keys to the kingdom, if you will, on our protocols for how our systems operate – the data stream that we can send out and receive back – allowing that third-party developer to create some of these interfaces themselves.

That has been one of our challenges, because we have always said that this is a fire alarm system, and if you want that type of an interface, we need to write it and get it listed. We had to step back and say, what if we developed a barrier gateway and allowed somebody else to develop the protocol and, done properly, became able to receive and send information to the fire alarm system? It’s like what Apple does with apps. We are going down that road with this third-party interface gateway.

Q: Have these developments changed how you’re planning for the future development of fire detection systems?

Yes, they have. We are looking at how we can use these systems strategically to make life safety systems better. And life safety is becoming more nuanced, proactive and comprehensive. Can I communicate and use this information to unlock the door so people have a clear egress? Can I start to use the elevators to evacuate people during an emergency?

We’ve been told traditionally to use the stairwell and not the elevator in the event of a fire. But it takes a person about a minute a floor to get out. That’s a problem if you’re in an 80-story building. You have elevators sitting there. Is there something we could do to allow these elevators to be used to evacuate people?

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers has been working hard on developing the language and requirements to do that. It’s just one example of how having systems integrated and talking to each other allows us to create smarter solutions that can help make facilities safer.

Q: What advice would you give to building owners, architects, designers or contractors to help them start planning today for the future of smart buildings?

The most important thing is to build awareness. The average building owner doesn’t know that a lot of this technology even exists.

We need to inform them that there are options they can ask about. One of my recommendations would be to ask your design engineer.

As you discuss the kind of windows you want, the kind of flooring and lighting and so on, ask how these systems could integrate together and what the benefits of integration would be. The bigger your facility, the greater the benefits of integrating these systems.

Another resource that people don’t use often enough is the AHJs, the authorities having jurisdiction. That’s the local fire marshal, the fire chief, the local first responders.

Don’t be afraid to sit down with a fire marshal, tell them what kind of building you’re putting in, and ask them what would help them respond in the event of an emergency in that building. They’ll be glad you asked, because these people see a lot of different buildings and respond to emergencies every day.

Share with LinkedIn Share with Twitter Share with Facebook Share with Facebook
Download PDF version Download PDF version

Author profile

Rodger Reiswig Vice President of Industry Relations, Johnson Controls

In case you missed it

No Easy Solutions: Complex Causes Surround Growth Of Wildfires
No Easy Solutions: Complex Causes Surround Growth Of Wildfires

Understanding the underlying causes of wildfires enables us to control them better over the long haul. One element is climate change, which has created conditions prone to wildfires by increasing heat, changing rain and snow patterns, and shifting plant communities. But there are also other contributing factors in the growing scale and intensity of wildfires. One is the condition of the forests in Australia, California, and other areas where the incidence of wildfires has increased. In California, for example, it is well known that the forests are unhealthy and in need of more prescribed burns and other thinning efforts. However, given California’s 33 million acres of forest land, more than half of it publicly owned, even an ambitious effort like addressing the needs of a million acres a year would require decades to fix the problem. managing the landscape We as a society need to decide how we can restore our forests, and start a conversation about what that looks like" “We know that getting our forests back to a healthy state will be the most effective way to cope with fires in the future,” says Jessica Block, Associate Director for Operational Programs at the WIFIRE Lab at the University of California San Diego. “However, massive fires are destroying the ability of forests to recover." The goal is not to stop wildfires but to understand the role of fire as part of the natural processes of managing the landscape. “We as a society need to decide how we can restore our forests, and start a conversation about what that looks like,” adds Block. “We should think of forests as a system we live in, and a system that we should be able to live in. Understanding the system is the goal, so that we can make all the right decisions in the future.” identify and control wildfires Fires are eating up forests that are way too dense and that have way too many standing trees, and state and federal agencies alone cannot solve the problem. Furthermore, the stakes are literally life and death: Thousands will die, whether in the wildfires or from the effects of inhaling smoke. The negative impact on long-term health is impossible to measure. Especially troubling is the impact of wildfires at the so-called wildland-urban interface (WUI), where growing population centers border on wildlands at risk of fire. Current fire models are not designed for these areas, so more work is needed to address these specific risks. Almost everyone agrees that the solution is to identify and control wildfires at early stages before they get out of control and turn into huge fires that impact millions of acres. automatic detection capabilities Today, postings on social media are an early warning sign but may not identify the exact location of a fire New technologies are helping to identify nascent wildfires. One option is the addition of automatic detection capabilities to the AlertWildfire network of cameras that currently keeps watch throughout five Western states to provide early warning of wildfires. So far, human volunteers have been used to track the cameras, but automation is on the horizon. One application of machine learning is to detect a smoke flume. A critical element is the ability to tell the difference between smoke and clouds, which humans can easily differentiate but is difficult to automate. With machine learning, computers should be able to “learn” the difference. Soon, mechanisms will exist to detect the location of a fire via multiple inputs - web cameras, social media and satellite images. Today, postings on social media are an early warning sign but may not identify the exact location of a fire. Working together, the other tools can help to pinpoint the location. Alerts to fire dispatchers must be verified as real to avoid misuse of resources.

Australia’s Moonshot: To Be Global Leader In Wildfire Prevention, Resilience
Australia’s Moonshot: To Be Global Leader In Wildfire Prevention, Resilience

Andrew and Nicola Forrest have committed 50 million Australian dollars (US$35 million) to the Fire and Flood Resilience initiative through Minderoo Foundation, with a goal of raising an additional 450 million (US$320 million) in direct or in-kind support over the life of the program. The goal of the ambitious investment is to make Australia the global leader in fire and flood resistance by the year 2025. It is an audacious vision that requires an innovative approach, and the organization takes inspiration from the U.S. Apollo mission of the 1960s. In effect, it will be a “moonshot” to advance the cause of preventing and controlling wildfires. Specifically, the first mission, Fire Shield, seeks to ensure no dangerous bushfire in Australia will burn longer than an hour by 2025. respond to wildfires The Flood and Resilience Blueprint further seeks to provide every community in Australia the skills and resources to cope with fire and flood disasters. Finally, it seeks to provide “healthy landscapes” by improving ecosystems to be “immune” to fire and flood disasters. Founded in 2001, Minderoo Foundation exists to arrest unfairness and create opportunities to better the world  “We are not daunted by or afraid of taking on the toughest challenges,” says Karen O’Connor, Missions Lead for Minderoo Foundation’s Fire & Flood Resilience initiative. "Fire has a devastating and unfair impact on communities all around the world - and if we can help drive better approaches to prevent and respond to wildfires, we can have a profound influence.” Founded in 2001, Minderoo Foundation exists to arrest unfairness and create opportunities to better the world. black summer bushfires Minderoo Foundation stepped up after Australia’s black summer bushfires in 2019-2020 to help communities respond to and recover from the devastation. The organization also seeks to do whatever it can to mitigate the risk of large-scale damage due to bushfires and build resilience to future disasters. “We understand that fire and flood are critical ecological processes that enable many of Australia’s ecosystems to function, supporting regeneration and new growth,” says O’Connor. “Therefore, Fire Shield does not aim to prevent wildfires entirely but rather to prevent wildfires from becoming disasters.” ground truth data Fire Shield will progress using the “Mission” methodology that involves breaking down major problems into smaller elements that can be addressed in turn. Missions are outcome-focused and time bound. They rely on accurate baseline and ground truth data and an ability to measure impact to know when the mission has succeeded in its goal. Fundamental to the Mission approach is bringing the best people and expertise to the challenges at hand Fundamental to the Mission approach is bringing the best people and expertise to the challenges at hand - whether they are working in scientific research, in government, corporations or philanthropy. Having accurate data and measures are also essential. To that end, Fire Shield is working with partners to develop an ecosystem for data standardization and sharing in order to collectively leverage insights to address future hazards. emergency services “It is also about making sure that people working in fire and emergency services are provided with the right information, in a timely manner, to make the best decisions when responding to fire,” says O’Connor. An example is Fire Shield’s partnership with the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council to support all Australian emergency services to develop new capabilities for fire detection, information sharing, fire simulation and response as well as utilizing data for improved decision-making wherever they are. fundamental principles “No matter what we do, Minderoo Foundation is always guided by the evidence,” says O’Connor. Minderoo Foundation’s Fire & Flood Resilience Blueprint has brought the best available evidence and expertise together to lay out a resilience blueprint for Australia and to inform the design and selection of missions, including Fire Shield. It challenges us to go right back to scientific principles and look for the best possible solutions” Importantly, the Blueprint is a “living document” that can evolve as the evidence base grows. First order problem solving is about going to the fundamental principles that apply to a problem, rather than thinking through analogies or accepted wisdom. “It challenges us to go right back to scientific principles and look for the best possible solutions,” says O’Connor.  important resilience problems The initiative is committed to working collaboratively. To date they have secured more than 50 partners across corporations, governments and civil society - and they are always open to more. They are also actively looking to collaborate with international programs with similar goals, to ensure they can multiply rather than duplicate efforts.  “We intend to share and publish our work widely, and of course continue to build collaboration, which is central to our approach,” says O’Connor. “We see ourselves as an enabler encouraging, facilitating and convening dialogue among different organizations and sectors of society to identify the most important resilience problems - and get to solutions faster.”

The Origin Of One California Wildfire Was A Gender Reveal Party
The Origin Of One California Wildfire Was A Gender Reveal Party

An explosion of blue-colored smoke on Sept. 5, 2020 in Yucalpa, California, was the beginning of a large wildfire in El Dorado Ranch Park. The pyrotechnic device was essentially a smoke bomb designed to send plumes of pink or blue smoke rising into the air, designating the gender of an expected baby. The expectant dad had packed the target with a highly explosive substance called Tannerite and shot it with a high-powered rifle. The target was designed to explode in pink or blue to reveal whether the couple was expecting a boy or a girl. Flammable foliage When the device ignited, so did the dry, wild grasses growing up to 4 feet tall in the meadow at the park, 80 miles east of Los Angeles. In the peak of summer, Southern California foliage is extremely flammable, and there were already fires burning across the state. After being active for 11 days, the fire had affected 18,506 acres and was 63% contained. The family that sparked the fire sought to put down the flames using water bottles. Then they called 911. The responsible individuals were still at the park when firemen arrived, and there are also surveillance cameras. Wildfire Spread And Evacuation The fire spread from the park to the north on to Yucalpa Ridge that separates Mountain Home Village and Forest Falls from the City of Yucalpa. The fire threatened a nearby residential neighborhood, and some 21,000 people were evacuated. After being active for 11 days, the fire had affected 18,506 acres and was 63% contained. The pyrotechnic show was a variation on the popular trend of gender reveal parties, which seek to announce the gender of an expected infant in increasingly (and competitively) colorful and/or dramatic ways. The parties are often featured prominently on social media. Rising temperatures Also contributing to the fire was recent weather in California, whose terrain was scorching in record-breaking temperatures as high as 120 degrees F in early September. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) reminds the public that, with the dry conditions and critical fire weather, it does not take much to start a wildfire, and those responsible for starting fires due to negligence or illegal activity can be held financially and criminally responsible. Natural conditions and human activity Natural conditions are central to causing wildfires, although human activity can provide the triggers Natural conditions are central to causing wildfires, although human activity can provide the triggers, including downed power lines, sparks from tire blowouts, and barbecues that get out of control. The pivotal gender-reveal part is just the latest example. If not for the increasingly dry and scorched conditions that make wildfire so easy to ignite, such human events would be much less consequential. With thousands of acres of wildfire raging across California, the cause of one wildfire seems less important in the overall scheme of things. However, the event does emphasize how seemingly minor events can have a very large impact. Lightning and fireworks Another cause of recent wildfires was lightning with more than 10,000 lightning strikes sparking 376 fires on Aug 16 and 17, 2020. In a season of wildfires, use of fireworks, for whatever reason, is a particular risk. Fireworks cause an average of 18,500 fires each year in the United States. Of those, about 1,200 injuries are from less powerful devices such as small firecrackers and sparklers.

vfd