Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2019.

Smart Revolution

As smart technologies proliferate, they not only aim to make life easier and cooler, but they also promise to transform the building systems designed to provide fire and life safety.


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Smart technology is everywhere. A scan of recent headlines tells the story of its widespread influence: “How smart home technology is being integrated in real estate,” “10 ways smart technology is reshaping the hotel industry,” “How food services and smart tech can help employers boost wellness,” “How is smart technology changing the drinks industry?”

All four of those articles were posted within 24 hours in March, and countless others have followed since then. A Google search of the term “smart technology” recently turned up 4.1 billion results—about eight and a half times as many results as generated by searching “the American Civil War.” So what exactly is smart technology?

NFPA Conference Sessions
NFPA Conference & Expo, San Antonio, TX, June 17-20, 2019

Connected Technologies for Water-Based Fire Protection Systems
Tuesday, June 18, 2–3:30 pm

Terry Victor, Johnson Controls; Christina Francis, Procter & Gamble

Emerging Power Technologies: Recognizing and Safely Using Smart Devices, Networks, and Intelligent Building Infrastructure
Monday, June 17, 10:30 am–noon

George Zimmerman, CME Consulting; Michael German, CommScope; Joel Goergen, Cisco Systems

Emerging Technologies, IoT, and the AHJ
Tuesday, June 18, 8–9 am

Denise Pappas, Valcom; Kevin Sehlmeyer, Michigan State Fire Marshal

The IoT and its Impact on Fire Protection Systems Design & Installation
Tuesday, June 18, 10:30–11:30 am

Wayne Moore, Jensen Hughes

Using PoE to Close the Building Data Gap: Building Intelligence for the Future
Tuesday, June 18, 3:45–4:45 pm

Jason Potter and Chad Jones, Cisco

Data Collection for Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance
Tuesday, June 18, 8–9 am

Terry Victor and Rodger Reiswig, Johnson Controls; William Koffel, Koffel Associates; Alexandra Norton, Xaap

Adapt or Move On: How Changes in Technology are Changing the Electrical Industry
Wednesday, June 19, 3:45–4:45 pm

Derek Vigstol and Erik Hohengasser, NFPA

Improving Fireground Visibility: Leveraging the Internet of Things to Improve Responder Safety and Operational Visibility
Monday, June 17, 9:15–10:15 am

Amalie Tolentino, Namatad; Matthew Tolentino, University of Washington


FireConnect presented by Peerless Pump
Monday, June 17, 4:15–4:45 pm

Running Fire Simulations in the Cloud presented by Sabalcore
Tuesday, June 18, 12:15–12:45 pm

Using New Technology to Address Changing Standards and Marketing Requirements for Fire Alarm Systems, presented by Edwards
Tuesday, June 18, 1:45–2:15 pm

The Challenges in Adopting Cloud-Based Software presented by simPRO Software
Wednesday, June 19, 11:30 am–noon

Definitions vary, but most generally, smart technology refers to any electronic device that can collect data. The devices usually connect to the Internet and can communicate with other similar devices or systems.

A USA Today article published in March clarified the differences between smart devices and connected devices. “A connected device can share data directly with other devices over a network,” Rick Kowalski of the Consumer Technology Association told the newspaper. “Smart devices enable more than just connectivity. A smart device typically has an operating system that will let you connect with other information services, entertainment services, or apps.” More complex than connected devices, smart devices often contain “sensors, microprocessors, data storage, controls, software, and … an embedded operating system,” the article added.

The marriage of smart devices to fire and life safety can be traced to the Smart Firefighting Project, a 2012 effort by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The project lasted years and outlined goals for decreasing fatalities, injuries, and property losses from fires through the use of smart technologies in firefighter equipment and apparatus as well as in the built environment. A 2015 report on the project, “Research Roadmap for Smart Fire Fighting,” found that while “some smart systems are already implemented, huge challenges remain in terms of engineering these products and systems to attain their full potential.”

Four years later, experts are beginning to paint a different picture. As codes and standards have started to recognize the potential of smart technology, manufacturers are finally ready to push their products into a market ripe for development.

For building safety professionals, this represents an exciting time. The addition of smart technology to fire and life safety building systems will present many benefits with minimal risk, said Robert Solomon, director of NFPA’s Building Fire Protection Division. “I’m fascinated by this stuff,” he said. “The more data we can collect and use from these devices, the more efficiencies we can create.”

Smart technology is a prevailing theme at the upcoming NFPA Conference & Expo in San Antonio, Texas, in June, and a number of conference events will explore the ways smart tech is already integrated—or soon could be—into fire and life safety building systems, both in and outside of the home.

‘A lot of efficiencies’

Terry Victor is passionate about eliminating what he believes are outdated, ineffective practices for the inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire protection equipment. In today’s digital age, better practices are available, he contends. Victor, senior manager of industry relations at Johnson Controls, sits on over a dozen NFPA technical committees, and he will co-present two education sessions related to smart building technology at C&E.

As an example, a requirement in NFPA 20, Standard for the Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection, is intended to determine if the casing on a fire pump gets too hot when the pump is in operation. “Right now, the inspector goes into the pump room, runs the pump, and puts his hand on the casing—if it’s his opinion that the casing isn't getting too hot, then it’s fine,” Victor told me in a recent interview. “So this all depends on how tough the guy’s hand is.” It goes without saying that this practice is far from an exact science. Heat tolerance on the skin varies from person to person, which is why seasoned chefs can grasp a sizzling pot that would cause most people to recoil in pain.

Smart technology sensors on a dry sprinkler valve

PRESSURE WATCH Three components of smart technology have been added to this dry sprinkler valve. Two pressure sensors attached below the valve’s gauges continuously collect information on air and water pressure. Cables connect the sensors to an interface device, attached to the valve’s pipe, which wirelessly transmits that information to a database where it can be used by facility managers, inspectors, and others to identify potential problems. Photograph: Johnson Controls

A much better solution, Victor said, would be to affix a smart device to the fire pump casing that could monitor its temperature and immediately send an alert to the facility manager if the casing becomes too hot. Such a system is more reliable and accurate, he added.

Overall, only 25 to 35 percent of fire and life safety building systems across the country are being inspected as they should be currently, Victor estimated. That’s in large part due to a shortage of qualified inspectors. So, instead of sending inspectors on the road, where they can only get to a few job sites a day, a more efficient process would employ smart devices that these inspectors can monitor from a laptop, he said.

“Some people worry smart technology will eliminate jobs, but in my opinion that’s not the case,” Victor said. “We would still need these people to look at the data from these devices and understand what they’re seeing. But instead of an inspector physically going to two or three job sites in a day, maybe he or she can sit at a computer and remotely inspect four or five job sites. There would be a lot of efficiencies.”

Victor said the fire and life safety building systems industry as a whole is decades behind other industries, such as the chemical and gas industries, when it comes to using smart technology devices that can remotely monitor things like fire pump casing temperature and the water pressure inside a fire sprinkler system. Recently, though, that’s begun to change. As technology has evolved, codes and standards have been updated, and industry, building owners, and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) have embraced smart technology in building systems of all kinds.

Procter & Gamble (P&G), the multinational consumer goods company whose brands include household names like Charmin toilet paper and Crest toothpaste, is one example. Christina Francis, a fire protection engineer at P&G, has helped spearhead this change. When we spoke in March, she, like Victor, bemoaned the slow adoption of smart technology for fire and life safety building systems but expressed hope for the future. “It’s such a brick-and-mortar industry,” she said. “While you can set a home alarm system remotely or check the thermostat, if you want to know the pressure on a fire protection system, you have to go physically look at a gauge and who knows if that gauge is even correct. … But the shift toward digital is happening.” Francis and Victor will present an education session together at C&E titled “Connected Technologies for Water-Based Fire Protection Systems.”

Not only does smart tech promise more accurate, more efficient inspection, testing, and maintenance of systems, it could save lives, too.

Francis described a fictional blaze in a warehouse equipped with smart technology to monitor the water pressure and flow rate of the building’s sprinkler system. “If we know we’ve been flowing 500 gallons of water per minute on the fire for the past 30 minutes, we know it means we should have control of the fire, and we can communicate that to incident command,” Francis said. “Being able to monitor water flow in a sprinklered building externally was one of our big ‘aha’ moments as a company. We realized we don’t need to put firefighters in harm’s way by sending them in. We know from lab work and testing that we can wait and go in later and then use a fire hose for final extinguishment.”

While it might sound a bit Orwellian, other smart devices aim to monitor the presence of building occupants—in other words, watch you. The concept, known as situation awareness, was incorporated into NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, in 2009.

“One such simple example is remote video monitoring of exit stairways,” said NFPA’s Solomon. “With such technology, if you have four stairwells in an occupancy, and can see three are congested and one isn’t, you can start sending people to the one that’s not congested. Conversely, you can tell first responders to use the free stairwell.” In the future, experts also envision similar technology being able to let first responders know if somebody is still in need of assistance inside a building and exactly where they are by accessing the location of their smart phone.

Living smart

The types of devices Victor, Francis, and Solomon described are forerunners to how well smart technology can integrate with fire and life safety building systems. While they spoke mainly of commercial applications for smart technology, there are also many technologies being developed for use in homes.

Companies like Nest—known for selling smart thermostats and doorbells—sell smart smoke alarms, too, which connect to the Internet and can alert homeowners of an alarm sounding via their smartphones. This could mean that if a fire starts when nobody’s home, the fire department can still get a call as soon as they would if somebody were there to hear the alarm, potentially preventing a total property loss. The devices can also provide homeowners with real-time information about battery life in a smoke alarm, so they don’t have to wait for that pesky chirp to let them know it’s time to forage for a 9-volt battery.

Nest smoke alarm

Smart technologies are also being used in home fire safety products, including smoke alarms by Nest that transmit information to homeowners via the Internet. Photograph: Getty Images

On the Expo floor at C&E, NFPA will present the National Electrical Code/Emerging Technology Showcase, a creation of what the building of the future might look like, complete with a number of smart devices including smart smoke alarms. “The showcase will give attendees a hands-on glimpse into a world of possibility that is either on the horizon or currently available in the marketplace,” a description of the showcase says. A number of other Expo events will highlight smart technology, including a presentation on running fire simulations in the cloud and using new technology for fire alarm systems.

When I sat down recently to talk smart tech with Casey Grant, director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF), who worked on the 2012 NIST Smart Firefighting Project, he had just come from a meeting with Whisker Labs. The company, Grant told me, has developed a smart device that you can put in your home to measure electrical usage. “It does it to incredible granularity,” Grant said. “Using continuous monitoring and predictive analytics, the device can tell you, for example, that there’s going to be an arc flash in a week or that your air conditioner is about to break down.”

In 2015, Grant and the FPRF hosted the Smart Home Summit in Palo Alto, California. What he and others learned from that summit, Grant said, is that innovation is already happening in the technology industry, from powerhouses like Google to small startups. The fire service, as well as building safety professionals, just need to tap into that innovation. “We don’t need to invent anything ourselves,” he said. “People are out there developing the technology that we can use. As fire safety professionals, we just have to help lead this and ask how we can start using these things.”

Grant is already using some smart technology in his own home, and he thinks the use of such devices will only increase. “Sensors are going into everything,” he said. “This is the Internet of Things. The possibilities are endless.”

Barriers still exist

In 2017, NFPA technical committee members agreed to move annex language in NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, which allowed for the installation of smart devices that monitor the status of the sprinkler system in various ways, into the body of the standard. Then, in 2018, similar updates were made to the 2019 editions of NFPA 20, NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, and NFPA 14, Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems.

Other NFPA documents, such as NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® (NEC®), have been changing with the times, too. The 2020 edition of the NEC is slated to include more information than ever on Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE, which uses communications cables to supply power in addition to transmitting data, is one way for smart devices to communicate with one another, and it’s been touted as the backbone for creating smart buildings.

All of these changes to widely used codes and standards are huge steps to advancing the application of smart technology in fire and life safety building systems. “In our world, an allowance in a code or standard has to be there before the devices can be created or listed for use,” Victor said. “You have to have the cart before the horse, so to speak.”

But barriers to its widespread use still remain, and Victor described its current prevalence as just “creeping into” fire and life safety building systems. The reason it’s not exploding in popularity, he hypothesized, is money. “Building owners just aren’t willing to put up the money,” he said. “They’ll put it into marble floors but not updates to fire protection systems.”

Solomon, who, when we last spoke in April, had just returned from a week of meetings on smart tech hosted by the International Organization for Standardization, also proposed another barrier—privacy concerns.

“The proponents of smart technology realize that the issue of privacy and security has to be included in the discussion,” he said. “This raises questions, such as, do occupants need to be aware of the fact that video systems may be monitoring their movements in exit stairways? Who is responsible for collecting, protecting, and disseminating the data that is collected by smart technology in building systems? And finally, what protection measures have to be in place to prevent the various smart devices from being hacked?” 

In Victor’s experience, one area where smart technology is making strides despite building owners’ frugality is in freeze prevention for fire protection systems in residential occupancies such as nursing homes and high-rise condominiums and apartment buildings as well as in commercial properties such as big-box retail stores. In particular, building owners who have suffered a loss because of frozen sprinkler pipes have been eager to invest in tech that monitors temperatures and can alert owners of a freezing condition before it happens. If the same level of caution existed among building owners wanting to prevent fire loss, Victor said, the technology might be more widely embraced.

There are many examples of fires that could have caused less damage had smart technology been present. In 2015, a massive blaze in a General Electric storage warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, caused $110 million in damage, the third-costliest fire of the year according to NFPA data. An investigation revealed fire pumps at the GE complex didn’t work properly. A dozen employees said they saw no water flowing from sprinklers. If smart devices had been in place earlier, they might have warned company officials, or even the local fire service, of the problems with the fire pumps before an incident occurred. Many other large-loss fires have occurred in the United States because of similar deficiencies in fire and life safety building systems.

Building owners’ resistance to costs aside, Victor, like Grant, believes smart technology will soon be common in all building systems. “I think it’s going to really accelerate in the next five years, and that will be a benefit to both inspectors and building owners,” he said.

Francis agrees, and she sees the younger generation, who “grew up holding cell phones,” as the driver to accomplishing this. She envisions a near future full of advancements like the ones P&G is already utilizing, as well as ones that have yet to be developed. Among those, Francis said, might be a tool that would allow a user to scan a piece of fire protection equipment with a smartphone; the tool would then pull up relevant YouTube videos explaining how to do maintenance on the equipment, eliminating the need to go digging for the equipment’s maintenance manual.

“Just because we can’t do it today doesn’t mean we can’t do it tomorrow,” Francis said. “And we’re getting closer to tomorrow.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer at NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images