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Fire alarm systems are designed to save lives and protect property by alerting people that a fire has broken out, providing extra time to escape and call the fire brigade.

But there are many differences between the types of fire alarms available, which depend on whether they are used in residential or commercial environments and the level of specific risk in each environment.

Fire alarms in residential properties

Most people will be familiar with the typical smoke detector used in residential properties.

In our homes, smoke detectors are often operated by battery (although there are also smoke alarms that are designed to run off the mains and are interlinked with each other.) They are becoming more prevalent as building regulations now require they are fitted in new constructions.

And whilst it is not (yet) a legal requirement for your home, it is strongly advisable to have a working smoke alarm fitted in a residential property.

The exception is rented properties where, by law, landlords must ensure that a mains powered smoke detector is installed and maintained. In rented apartment blocks this means every individual property has to have at least one smoke or heat alarm.

Positioning and size of residential fire alarm systems

In residential properties, fire alarm systems tend to be fairly small and simple. They will usually consist of one or two smoke or heat detectors fitted in a central location or near to areas that pose a greater risk of fire, such as kitchens, at least one on every level in the communal areas such as landings.

Where there are compartmented areas, such as a block of flats, smoke detectors will need to be fitted in each flat and ideally should be interlinked, so that if one alarm is triggered, the rest of the alarms in the building will sound to warn people of the danger.

Testing and maintenance of domestic fire alarms

The obvious drawback with battery operated smoke alarms is that when the battery runs out, the alarm will not work. Often people forget to test and therefor replace smoke alarm batteries, meaning that their homes are not protected.

It’s advisable to test smoke alarms at least once a week. Testing is straightforward as most domestic alarms are fitted with a test button that can be pressed to check the alarm is working.

Commercial fire alarm systems

Protecting members of the public and the safe evacuation of people present in a building are top fire safety priorities in a commercial setting. And due to the varied nature of these environments, there are many different types of commercial fire alarm systems to fulfil specific fire safety requirements.

Fire alarm systems in commercial buildings are usually much bigger and more complex than those used in residential applications. With larger sized buildings such as big office blocks or retail areas, fire alarm systems will need careful design and planning, with a full fire risk assessment taking place before installation which considers the specific risks of the environment.

Often, fire detectors will need to be spread out across buildings, with several in each main area as required to provide full coverage – so that anywhere a fire starts, the alarm will be able to quickly alert people to the danger.

All fire alarms or sub components need to be interlinked together with a central control panel, which should ideally be constantly monitored. These systems should be addressable, so that the exact location of the fire can be pinpointed. Detectors should detect smoke or heat, whichever is most appropriate for the environment and here is where working with a specialist fire safety consultant will prove invaluable.

Fire alarm activation points

As well as detecting fire, call points will be needed in commercial buildings so that individuals can raise the alarm immediately should they discover a fire. These trigger points are usually activated by the user breaking a glass that will sound the alarm.

With the types of fire alarm systems used in commercial premises, there is more flexibility provided with the central control panel. This means the system can be setup to suit individual requirements and you can choose which alarms will sound. This is particularly useful if there are several buildings on a site and you only want alarms to sound in the building where the activation point has been triggered. 

Examples include:         

  • Fire alarms with PA systems: There may be the need to provide specific evacuation instructions and communicate these to the people inside a building that is on fire. Voice systems allow public announcements to be made, which can speed up evacuation and save lives.         
  • Wireless and radio fire alarms: Large buildings will require wireless or radio fire alarms. The advantage of these is that they do not need hardwiring and can cover a large range of up to 1.5km.

Monitoring and triggering fire suppression systems

In many cases commercial fire alarms require 24/7 monitoring.  This ensures complete fire protection even when there is nobody on the premises and serves to protect property by raising the alarm, and potentially triggering suppression systems to stop the spread of the fire.

Monitored systems can be setup up to automatically notify the emergency services of the fire and its exact location.

Maintenance and testing

As commercial fire alarm systems are often responsible for protecting a larger number of people than residential alarms, they differ in that they are governed by stricter legislation concerning maintenance and testing.

Here, testing should be carried out by a qualified professional on a regular basis set out in a formal fire risk assessment. Inspection and servicing of fire alarms should take place at least 2-4 times per year, although this may be more often, depending on specific requirements of the location.

In busy environments or places that are open 24/7 such as hotels, there may be no choice but to test the fire alarm when there are members of the public present on the premises. This must cause minimum disruption and in the interests of safety must not result in down time for the alarm system.

Legal requirements for commercial fire alarm systems

There is more legislation concerning the installation, placement, testing and maintenance to regulate fire alarms in commercial premises than in residential buildings.

British Standards provide guidelines that should be complied with and failure to do so is seen as a breach of a responsibility towards safety and can be punishable by law.

Fire alarms systems play such a key safety role in commercial buildings and there are a lot of lives potentially at steak.

If the fire alarm systems are not sufficient then harsh penalties can be given, including hefty fines and in the case of extreme negligence, this can even result in imprisonment if lives are lost as a result of an ineffective approach to fire safety.

In addition if a fire does occur in commercial premises insurance policies may be void if it can be proved that the fire alarm and smoke detectors were ineffective.

For more information or with any queries or concerns on fire protection in residential or commercial premises, please contact Amthal Fire and Security.

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