THE MAGAZINE

Fast Track to Fire Safety

By Laura Spadanuta

In-sourcing
 
One of the biggest changes accompanying the new system was a policy decision to take the monitoring back from the third party and do it in-house. This change came several months after the new system was installed, and it was facilitated by the fact that the new fire system would be easier to monitor because of the graphic annunciator. Prior to the renovation, surveillance and fire were completely separate standalone units. 
 
Surveillance is “here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, holidays, and everything else,” says Slade. Once that system was joined with the fire-safety system, it “just actually made economical sense” to turn monitoring over to the surveillance team, he says. The in-house staff now gets trained specifically on those new duties.
 
When the new system was installed last year, the third-party company still monitored it. But with the addition of the graphic annunciator to the local operator console in the surveillance room in January, Oaklawn was able to take over.
 
Now Slade says that surveillance personnel can assess the situation quickly in the event of an alarm and prevent the fire department from coming all the way out if they realize that the alarm is false.
 
The in-house assessment also means a faster response in the event of a real fire. “As we were going through and doing our testing, that’s when we noticed that it was taking about three to five minutes for the [third party] alarm center to contact us in the surveillance room to tell us that there was actually an alarm,” says Slade.
 
By contrast, with the new system, staff has the ability to automatically pinpoint an alarm and respond quickly, which means that a small fire might be contained before it spreads. Those early moments are critical, he notes, because, by some estimates, a fire doubles in size every minute, so if it takes five minutes to receive notification, plus whatever time it takes to respond, that can make a tremendous difference in the amount of damage that is sustained.
 
The in-house alarm monitoring has also streamlined maintenance. For example, if a smoke detector sets off a false alarm, surveillance personnel can alert staff to examine it for problems and repair or replace equipment as needed. With the old system, if a smoke detector malfunctioned, says Slade, “we’d have to wait for the alarm company to come out and replace that smoke detector…so that particular smoke detector may have been down for several hours as opposed to being down for about 10 minutes.”
 
The system is also programmed to alert employees if there are any problems. For example, the installers say that false alarms can be kept down by setting a certain “obscuration” threshold for the alarms. That essentially sends out an alert if the alarm gets too dirty.
 
Mass Notification
 
One of the major reasons that Oaklawn chose this technology is its mass notification capability. Slade wanted a system where the message could be tailored to the specific incident and where words, rather than just a warning siren, could convey the importance of the message.
 
“It’s kind of like, you walk through a parking lot, you hear a car alarm going off, you don’t even turn and look at it anymore. Well, the thing is that if somebody came on the intercom or a reported message says ‘this is an actual threat, please leave the building immediately,’ they will do it,” says Slade. He adds, “I would like to get it to where when the initial [alarm] goes off, that it states that we have detected a problem, we’re investigating the problem. And then if it is an actual threat, we can push that button that says, ‘Yes, let’s evacuate the building.’”
 
The annunciator can be used to make live messages or to send out prerecorded messages. That’s a huge improvement over a simple siren that can only signal people to leave. In that case, notes Slade, you end up “evacuating when you don’t need to, or you will not be evacuating when you actually should.”
 
Mass notification is extremely important, agrees Hicks. He adds that the National Fire Protection Association devotes a section of its requirements to mass notification (which it refers to as emergency communications systems).
 
Policy
 
Fire safety isn’t only about technology. Upon installing the new system, various additional responsibilities for different jobs at Oaklawn were added into the fire policies. For example, people dealing with money are to suspend transactions when an alarm goes off, and security personnel are to staff exits and halt escalators. There are also protocols for what to do when each type of alarm goes off.
 
After the system was installed, Slade says the facility was planning a drill, but it got a real-life false alarm to deal with instead. A water-pressure alarm alerted surveillance to a change in water pressure, and the fire alarms and mass notification system went off. The gaming area was evacuated in about three minutes.
 
The pressure change, related to an issue with the city’s water supply, was not a danger to Oaklawn. But the incident drove home the benefits of having a customized mass notification announcement telling everyone on the property that personnel are investigating the alarm, rather than evacuating the facility.
 
Fire protocols are especially important in the stables where the horses are kept. Oaklawn has a detailed fire prevention program for the stable area, which includes a prohibition on smoking, ensuring that fire hydrants are visible, and promptly disposing of used hay.
 

Oaklawn has taken strides to ensure the safety of its patrons and employees by updating its fire alarm system, integrating it with other aspects of the facility, and taking over the operations on its own. Slade is already satisfied with the improvements on the system. That the facility has improved the odds of fire safety well into the future is now a safe bet.


Laura Spadanuta is an associate editor at Security Management.

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