What is the role of security systems in case of fire or other emergency?
4 Mar 2020
When a fire or other emergency occurs in a building or facility, first responders depend on every available resource to ensure a safe and orderly evacuation and response. One element in any response plan is the facility’s physical security systems, including access control, video surveillance and intrusion detection. How can these systems contribute to an orderly response to a chaotic situation? We asked this week’s Expert Panel Roundtable: What is the role of security systems in the event of a fire or other emergency evacuation?
Fire and security systems are usually separate. However, on larger systems, sometimes they must work together particularly if there are secure doors and access control systems in place. This might be done through a Building Management System (BMS) or simply through interfaces fitted on the fire alarm system. For example, when the fire alarm activates, secure doors might need to be unlocked and access-controlled doors opened. There might also need to be signals sent to internal and external security bodies. Internally this will alert security guards to assist in clearing the building and directing firefighting teams if required, and externally to send warnings to monitoring stations. Fire Alarm System Commissioning Engineers would need to work closely with BMS Engineers or Security Engineers to ensure that the systems are integrated correctly so that evacuation from the building can occur without delays or barriers.
As performance and functionality of individual fire and security systems have improved, so too has their capability to operate together. This has paved the way for one integrated solution, which has the potential to combine access control, video surveillance and intrusion detection. By implementing an integrated security system, it’s possible to monitor and manage the entire system from a single location and control how devices interact with each other. If an evacuation alarm is triggered, for instance, the video feed can help determine whether there’s an emergency or not. Electronically controlled doors/barriers/turnstiles, which are part of an escape route, can be automatically released to ensure free passage. In the event of an emergency evacuation, data from the access control and visitor management system can also be utilised to create a real-time roll-call procedure. This helps to identify whether all occupants have safely evacuated the building.
Few incidents require as much cooperation between response teams as a fire or an emergency evacuation. First responders need to collaborate closely with law enforcement, safety, security, and facilities management to ensure a prompt and safe resolution. Traditional security applications don’t paint the full picture of an environment, and the job of identifying what is or isn’t a risk is therefore left to the individual. Human factors such as emotions, stress, and fatigue invariably come into play, which can lead to errors. A collaborative decision management system that is integrated within a security system can simplify incident response through greater situational intelligence and guided action. Designed to eliminate doubt, it gives emergency response teams a clear view of unfolding situations, while automated workflows and dynamic operating procedures guide system and operator responses every step of the way so that emergency teams can respond quickly and collaboratively.
An emergency evacuation is chaotic by nature. People are afraid, and often experiencing a high level of stress. To help ensure the safety of all individuals inside a facility, all life safety and security systems must work together to enable rapid egress. When it comes to security entrances, their role essentially reverses; rather than controlling or limiting the flow of people, they need to unlock and/or open completely to allow unhindered egress. To ensure that your security entrances function the way they need to in an emergency, your provider and entrance installers should understand building codes and rules from bodies such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Building Code (IBC), as they are complex and differ for revolving doors, mantrap portals, and varying types of turnstiles. In an emergency, having the right security entrance solution plays an important role in getting everyone out safely.
When it comes to safety, video-centric security systems are critical in emergency situations for enhancing two elements: situational awareness and mobile dispatch. In a chaotic event, like a fire or natural disaster, time is of the essence. Because incidents and threats can happen with little to no warning, every second counts, and precious time can be lost when information is inaccurate or missing. Having the right dispatch and response technology integrated across a security ecosystem and connected controls can literally mean the difference between life and death. The single best strategy for disaster situations is to fuse data inputs from all technical controls with centralized command center technologies and security staff processes. This approach creates a video-centric, intelligent security operations approach. By allowing dispatchers, responders and third-party resources to share insights in real time, integrated security systems give security teams the information they need when they need it.
Integrating security systems like access control, mass communication systems and video surveillance can not only streamline emergency evacuations through automation, but directly influence positive outcomes in the event of a fire or lockdown. For instance, consider how integrations can improve a school’s lockdown evacuation; the minute a life safety alarm is activated, video surveillance cameras can send visual information directly to local police to optimise their response. Simultaneously, access controls can activate to lockdown the area of the school containing the threat, while communication systems send evacuation instructions via text. Because these three security systems were integrated, students and faculty can be quickly evacuated in an orderly fashion.
In the event of an emergency, the role of the security system will vary, but ultimately its job is to facilitate a quick and efficient response to minimise exposure. It is defined as the combination of staff and technology (fire, alarm, access control, and video). For example, during an evacuation, staff may use the technology to remotely open doors and determine the safest route out. I believe the most important component of the security system is the people. Everyone has a job to do, and the faster it’s done, the less risk we’re exposed to. Responding quickly means that staff know exactly what needs to be done, which I believe is the biggest challenge. While there are detailed plans, they are hidden within documents, located online or in a binder. The result is a loss of valuable time, figuring out what to do, during a life or death situation.
Security systems have evolved in recent years to be more integrated across technology systems that used to be specialised based on a single application. For example, fire systems were siloed and only addressed the need for detection and alerting of a fire. Today, fire systems are integrated with building management systems, video management systems, public address systems, computer-aided dispatch systems, all designed to enable automation in improving detection and response to a security and life safety incident, and thereby increasing the odds of preventing catastrophic damage. By leveraging technology in an integrated fashion, the role of security systems expands beyond the traditional single application, to being able to address many difference use cases, which also results in better return on investment (ROI).
In an emergency situation, your primary concern is the safety of your employees and getting them to a secure location ASAP. Entrance control systems can help facilitate emergency evacuation protocols by monitoring and controlling pedestrian access, thus improving life safety for building occupants. Emergency exits need to comply with local building regulations and the requirements of emergency services for the evacuation of personnel, whilst remaining secure. The fail-safe and power-fail functions of turnstiles ensure unhindered but monitored emergency egress, meaning that in the event of an emergency or power being lost, the turnstiles will release all locks to allow free and unobstructed exit. With battery backup, Fastlane turnstiles are capable of detecting people as they pass through, still maintaining a population count. This provides an accurate representation of the numbers of people entering/exiting the building – or specific areas within a building - during an emergency evacuation.
Security systems have become closely intertwined with fire and emergency systems because they provide invaluable data on the situation. For example, CCTV provides a visual verification of the alarm including the exact location of a fire or other emergency, its cause or if it is a false alarm. Security is invaluable in an intruder lockdown situation, ensuring the issue is contained but also ensuring the safe evacuation of innocent people within the effected vicinity. By using CCTV and surveillance systems, along with integrated access control it is possible to either contain a situation or ensure vulnerable people or assets are protected until further help can arrive. The work of security systems continues in the aftermath as well, providing guidance for rescue and medical teams and providing a valuable record of the incident for further investigation, analysis and even legal proceedings.
Fire and security systems increasingly are being expected to work together to ensure the safety of a building or other facility. In any case, no security system should stand in the way of a fast and orderly evacuation and response to any emergency. At a minimum, systems should be designed to ensure that all doors are accessible and open for easy exit. Security systems can also provide information to help in an emergency, whether generating a list of people who entered a building or offering broader situational awareness to direct the most effective response.
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