Hot Startup for Fire / Intrusion Integration: Encore's FireFighter

Author: Brian Rhodes, Published on Jun 17, 2014

A startup claims to have orders pouring in for a novel solution to integrate firm alarm monitoring with one's intrusion system.

The benefit? Fire monitoring for no additional monthly cost and by adding a single sensor to the panel. How does it work, and is it better than the alternatives? We take a look in this note.

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Comments (18)

In a lot of cases, interconnected smokes can be easily connected to an alarm panel very reliably with a wire-in relay module. You can buy them for less than $20 normally, connect a relay output to an input on a panel (or a wireless contact if you need) and you're done.

Granted, this requires connecting to the interconnect wiring which a lot of alarm dealers may not want to do, but it's not particularly complex.

If you want to pay for false alarms, then feel free to use a relay module. Many integrators have tried this route, within the past 2-3 years, and gave up on it because of too many false alarms due to a power failure and chirps. Too many false alarms cause an integrator a lot of money and customer problems. If you live in a area where you have to pay the cops for false alarms, get ready to pay.

Ethan,

I have had to point this out to many dealers over the years who try to use those interconnect circuit relays for fire monitoring... If you read the installation sheet for any of the brands (Firex, BRK, etc.) you will find two statements that prevent them from being used (properly) for this purpose.

The first is very explicit - "This device is not to be used for interconnection with an alarm reporting device", or some similar statement. The alarm reporting device would be, of course, an alarm panel. I would imagine there are several reasons it's not deemed reliable by the manufacturers, but technicals aside, from a strictly business perspective, few of us would care to try explaining to an insurance underwriter why it should cover us after a house burns down with the family inside, with no alarm response, because we ignored an explicit manufacturer warning.

The other statement you will find on the install sheet is along the lines of "This device is not to be used in circuits containing smoke detectors with battery backups". Interconnected smoke detectors with battery (9V) backup are designed to reliably operate their detection circuitry, internal sounders and interconnect circuitry while running on battery backup, down to some voltage, as the battery drains. (I don't know what that voltage spec is.) All of these functions they perform very well with a minimum of current draw, to meet certain longevity specs during a loss of AC. It seems obvious part of the design specification did not include powering add-on relays, and to allow the use of said relays on an interconnect circuit that could be running on battery backup when it is needed would nullify the design specification of the system for reliability when operating on battery power. Those relays really only exist for use in special applications not requiring battery backup, such as to activate LEDs in a guard shack or at a nurse's station.

Sadly, I have had more than a couple dealers, when I point this out to them, reply with "Sure, but what percentage of the time will those smokes ever be operating on battery power, anyway? Only during power outages." I always ask them... "In terms of hour-by-hour risk, when is it most likely that system will need to be reliable? When do people start lighting their whole house with candles and oil lamps? When do those who haven't used their wood stove or fireplaces in 10 years crank them up? When do people do stupid things like cook inside on a BBQ grill or with a gas camping stove? When the power is out." As an aside, those same reasons make it even more important not to rely on those relays and expect reliability as more residential smokes are equipped with built-in CO sensing.

It's an easy thing to miss, Ethan. As I said, I have seen many dealers do it. And yes, some of them are even stupid enough to continue the practice after the problems are pointed out to them.

An alternative that is far from perfect, but much more reliable and UL listed for the purpose, is Gentex 9000 series smokes and heats. The (big) downsides - no power supervision of the smokes, no supervision of whether the smoke containing the built-in relay is actually attached to the AC/interconnect pigtail, and no point ID on alarms. Like I said, this is far from perfect - but none of those are any different than what you get with an improperly used relay. The upsides are UL listing, you still have a standard AC, interconnected smoke circuit with 9V backups, and you achieve monitoring from all smokes in the house by taking a fire wire from the alarm panel to a single smoke detector. It also upgrades the house to photoelectric detectors, vs the ionization detectors in most homes. In a surveillance forum it's probably best that I don't launch on all the reasons it is idiotic that nearly all homes in the US have ionization detectors instead of photoelectric.

We have found too many false alarms come with builder smokes. I think this is a cool idea but until contractors start installing better smokes and in the right places (NOT IN KITCHEN OR OUTSIDE BATHROOM!) we'll stick to installing our own full or supplemental fire systems.

As a 30+ year veteran in the security industry, aside from the liability and the false alarm factors already noted, this harkens back to the days of the manufacturer who produced wind-up detectors and deployed a high pressure close measure that included pictures of burned children all while charging ridiculously high prices for detectors that never really worked. My point is not that FireFighter will resort to these drastic measures, but it is a perfect breeding ground for less than professional salespeople to sell complete peace of mind with a product that has way too many variables to consider. Our industry has a bad enough reputation with door knocker programs. Do we want to promote and install will-work-if shortcut products?

When I was installing commerical & residential fire and intrusion systems, many homeowners commented to me that their monitored, UL-approved smoke detectors very rarely alarm (which is very good in itself!), while the single-station units seem to go off quite easily. A fire alarm design engineer once explained to me that the cells used in the simple/cheap 'single-station' smoke detectors were too 'coarse' and vulnerable to false alarms compared to the refined detectors of commercial-grade units, and thus couldn't be confidently monitored for FD dispatch. Maybe this is no longer true and the technology has improved, but Encore's market seems to be retrofitting structures with existing detectors. My bet is that many AHJ's will push back and/or homeowners will remove the Encore units after being fined for too many false alarm dispatches. (BTW, it IS pretty clever to use audio detection tuned to the Code 3 cadence, but that non-supervised connection likely wouldn't qualify as fail-safe in a fire alarm inspection).

Btw, I am curious what the consensus is here about this product. Here's a poll:

Has anyone looked up what UL listing this product has received, if any? With a residential fire listing I would vote "need to know more". Without it, I'm not even a little bit interested.

Hello Andrew:

Encore says FireFighter is UL985 listed (household) by ETL Intertek.

So, the FireFighter is UL-listed, but not necessarily the detectors that it is listening to ...

1.5 These requirements do not cover single- or multiple-station fire alarm devices, automatic fire detectors, or alarm indicating appliances, such as bells, horns, and the like. They do cover accessories which are external to the control unit and are dependent upon the control unit function, such as end-of-line devices, annunciators, and remote switches

That leaves the liability, I think, on the property owner and not on Encore. But the installing dealer is still in the mix. And probably not in a good way if the limits of the devices are not very carefully explained & understood clearly.

Neat but way too much liability on our side so with this I would have to worry if they don't install the smoke detector properly, what happens when there is a fire. . The moment you touch in any way your clients purchased smoke detector it's your responsibility they communicate properly. People change devices and do not notify the dealer. If the house burns down because their smoke detector they bought didn't work quickly enough, Who's fault is that? Just a bad idea.

I completely agree with Andrew. As professional security dealers we are in the business of preventing the "1 in a million" scenarios. We have to try to insure that our stuff is bullet proof. The Firefighter reeks of "cheap gimmick" and has way too many potential short comings to be of any ethical use by professionals.

How many news reports do we hear where people died in a fire and that smoke detectors were either missing or had power and/or batteries removed? If a big loss is sustained in a fire and you are monitoring the prem the finger will be pointed at you. Sure you may be able to dodge the liability if the fault is with others but is it really worth the grief and the court case?

If there are rampant false alarms you will also get the blame and probably get stuck with the hefty FD dispatch charge (in my locale it's $700 per truck). If you don't install the detectors then you have no control over their placement. You also will likely run into issues if/when they reach end of life. If the original smokes are 120V builder installed units then your options are either replace them yourself (in my locale this requires a licensed electrician) or bouncing your customer to another contractor who may or may not know what they are doing.

I'm all for saving money but given what's at stake it's far too risky IMHO.

This brings up a good point, the fire system wont be supervised. So if a cable is cut or a smoke is tampered with who will know?

Generally speaking, no one. Residential smokes typically do not have tamper detection. If you cut the interconnecting wire but not power, some of them will alarm, but not all.

UL985: Fifth Edition; Household Fire Warning System Units

Does this device comply?

As I understand the Code, all detection and annuniciation components of a monitored fire alarm system must be be supervised so that a faulty system reveals itself. This is usually accomplished by EOL resistors, two-way wireless chatter or regular communication test signals. Much engineering and reliability testing goes into the entire chain of communications before ANY jurisdiction blesses introducing a new technology into the system.

It seems obvious that the one-way audio link that the FireFighter device uses to listen to an otherwise unsupervised single-station detector simply doesn't meet Code. And, by adding an essentially 'casual' device to an otherwise 'formal' designed and engineered system, a licensed installer is risking malpractice.

Just saw a startup called Leeo today that released a similar device, essentially a night light which connects to wifi and sends alerts to you and/or others when it hears a fire or CO alarm. No central station monitoring (sorry RMR fiends).

Demo video here:

Here's Gizmodo's main complaint:

"things to hate... it takes up an entire wall outlet—both plugs—thanks to its circular design."

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