Lerch Bates Inc. Building Insight

Global Leaders in Technical Consulting for the Building Industry

The End of Proprietary Fire Alarm Systems

Proprietary fire alarm systems have a long history. These are systems generally designed, built, installed, and serviced by the same company, or installed and serviced by a very small, limited group of dealers or authorized representatives,

Much of the development of modern fire alarm systems was driven by the innovation of these large proprietary system companies.

Three of the most prominent companies that have historically built, installed, and serviced their own fire alarm systems are Autocall, Honeywell, and Simplex.

Over the last century, as fire alarm systems become more technically complex, the proprietary companies were in many cases in the best position to meet the design challenges of larger systems, and they flourished. In addition to strong technical superiority, they had fine marketing and sales infrastructures which helped them maintain their market leadership.

These proprietary vendors maintained, and still do, that their control of the manufacturing, sales, and service channels enabled them to provide a superior product. In many cases, they did produce excellent products.

Over time, however, building owners and managers began to realize that the close working relationship, technical superiority, and atmosphere of trust they had come to expect from their large proprietary system vendors was being replaced with a one sided, monopolistic relationship. The vendors, after getting their proprietary system installed in a building, seemed to take increasing advantage of their single source relationship by charging vastly higher than market prices and providing steadily deteriorating customer service.

Proprietary fire alarm companies have historically had a very strong sales presence in the specifier market, where architects and engineers include their systems in new building designs, often without a lot of consideration of post installation service and upgrade issues, or much contact with the people who will end up living every day with their design and specification decisions. This strong presence has enabled proprietary companies to maintain a large market share even as end user dissatisfaction has grown.

The computer and electronic revolution has presaged the end for proprietary fire alarm companies. Like the fire alarm business, computers were once dominated by large single source companies who gave their customers what they chose to give them. The development of open systems and universal architecture enabled an explosion of competition, vastly improved customer service and satisfaction, and continues to drive prices down.

The same forces are now shaping the fire alarm industry. New computerized technology is making the systems much less complex for the installer. The rise of digital signaling makes the fire alarm into a glorified computer. As systems become internally simpler, they become easier to design and

manufacture, so more manufacturers enter the market or move up into the larger systems markets that the big proprietary vendors used to control.

Many electronic building control systems have entered into the realm of “open systems”, where manufacturers have worked together to provide common standards and protocols for communication between the products of different manufacturers. Although this development it may have reduced profits at the former proprietary building systems companies, it has proved to be a boon to end users who are no longer locked in to single vendors. And the biggest open system of all, the internet protocol TCP/IP, will eventually make every electronic system an open system.

The fire alarm business has not yet seen the advent of open system for the reason that makes fire alarm different from technically similar types of electronic control systems; the broad range of codes and standards with which fire alarms must comply.

Making Strides

There are countless organizations, groups and associations that bring industry professionals together for mutual assistance, advice, support, news, etc.  This type of networking is certainly not new, but can be more valuable than ever before given today’s fast-paced work environment, rapid advancements in technology, never-ending search to become more efficient, cost control measures and so on.

A premier organization in the transit world is the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which serves to strengthen and improve public transportation across the country.  Its membership base is comprised of owners and operators that provide a variety of transportation services, private companies that perform transportation related work, government agencies, state DOT’s, academic institutions and the like.

APTA utilizes many methods that ultimately serve the public interest.  Information sharing amongst members and volunteers is an example that represents the basis by which improvements and efficiencies can be seen in operations, equipment and materials.  Elevators and escalators are included in this activity via the Elevators and Escalators Technical Forum (EETF).  The EETF connects public and vertical transportation stakeholders in a venue that promotes the very nature of what industry resources are all about.

The current economic climate and political beliefs aside, investment in public transportation has grown and must continue to do so for a variety of reasons.  Different challenges and constraints are often encountered whether maintaining a state of good repair, rebuilding existing infrastructure, or expanding a service line.  As transit systems focus more on their elevator and escalator equipment, the need to network and partner with colleagues in the vertical transportation industry becomes greater.

In a sense, the collective public transportation industry (at least in regard to elevators and escalators) is pushing through barriers and making strides to the future; the support of which through active participation within organizations such as APTA and the EETF is beneficial for all.

When we’re on track and heading in the same direction, good things can happen.