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How the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing fire safety
Like blockchain or big data, the ‘Internet of Things’ is a term often bandied about by executives, as something that sounds great but doesn’t ultimately mean anything. While the uptake of IoT devices has been slower than expected, the technology isn’t just hype – it really does have the potential to revolutionise numerous aspects of our lives.
The most prominent applications of the Internet of Things are for driverless cars and home appliances. In the world of fire safety however, its most interesting application may be the use of sensors in buildings. The collection and application of atmospheric data could dramatically alter our approach to fire prevention and firefighting, and ultimately help to save lives.
What is the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things (IoT) usually refers to the idea that everyday objects, such as your fridge or kettle, could be connected to the internet. A truly connected Internet of Things would allow your fridge to do your online shopping for you, ordering milk when you run out; or let you to pour a cup of coffee on your way home from work.
In reality, however, the definition is a bit more broad. The IoT is now used to refer to any small, internet-connected devices which record specific data, and transmit this to a central location or device to be interpreted. These sensors might record audio, video, temperature data, location data and much more besides.
IoT sensors form a major part of what are known as ‘smart buildings’. Smart buildings are properties which are controlled in part by autonomous computer software, known as building management systems (BMS). These sensors can maintain a specific temperature in different rooms, turn lights on and off, and other tasks which benefit from external data.
The most recent developments in smart building technology use data analysis and cross-referencing to make more complex decisions. For instance, a BMS can check if it’s hot or cold outside (either from sensors or an online source), and change the temperature indoors to suit it. It could even change the room temperature according to the preferences of the person who’s booked it, and order their favourite drinks to be delivered for a meeting.
Sensors in the parking lot might link to a parking system, designating a space for you as you arrive. Other uses include booking meeting rooms, where sensors can tell you which rooms are occupied, and even what they’ve been stocked with. Other sensors might be used for analysis of environmental conditions and energy usage, helping to create a more efficient workplace.
Fire safety sensors
The same principles applied to fire safety open up numerous possibilities for entirely new ways of fighting fires. Temperature sensors are currently configured to detect temperatures in normal ranges, but special heatproof sensors could detect the temperature of fires. This would not only detect fires before they emit smoke, but could also give firefighters a clue as to the intensity of fires, allowing them to alter their equipment and approach.
Knowing where in a building a fire is taking place is also invaluable. At present, you may have an idea of where detectors were set off or where an alarm was pulled, and you might get some witness testimony. But IoT sensors could confirm this beyond all doubt, showing you not just where a fire started but where it is spreading, and how quickly.
All of this information could be transmitted automatically to fire crews, even happening alongside the emergency call. In the future, it’s entirely possible that calls will be automated by the BMS, with the system forwarding vital data to the local fire department’s computer systems, which could then organise their own proportionate response. A voice alarm system could also inform evacuating employees of the best escape routes, based on the path of the fire.
Support and maintenance
Away from the buildings, IoT sensors can be just as useful on the firefighters themselves. With fire engines acting as a base station (in much the same way as a TV truck would for reporters), firefighters can be fitted with a number of sensors, including vitals, temperature, visibility and more. These sensors can then allow for greater coordination and insight with crews outside and at remote locations.
This is particularly vital given that many fire crews, such as in the 9/11 and Grenfell Tower disasters, have complained of poor to non-existent mobile communication, hampering coordination and response times. The building’s floor plan might also be stored in a central database, available to the fire crews before they arrive.
IoT technology can also improve the upkeep of vital fire detection systems. For many large facilities, fire alarm systems are a patchwork of different alarms made by different manufacturers, with maintenance procedures relying on the readings from each control panel, and manual storage. The Internet of Things can utilise a single point of contact (e.g. a phone or computer interface) to bring together data from various alarm systems, allowing a user to quickly view maintenance logs and data.
Fire prevention and suppression
IoT powered fire safety doesn’t just have to keep us informed – it can play an active role in keeping us safe. Technology like Google’s Nest smart home system can already link a fire alarm or carbon monoxide detector with home appliances, such as the boiler or oven. If the system detects a fire or carbon monoxide, it can automatically shut off these ignition sources.
Many buildings have sprinkler systems, which function on the basis that office equipment is generally cheaper to replace than an entire building. Gas and chemical solutions are also available, which minimise damages but are unsuitable for populated areas. What the IoT could offer is more targeted firefighting capabilities, helping to put out small fires and stem the tide until emergency crews arrive.
By sensing exactly where the fire is, the nature of the fire and whether there are any occupants in the room, a smart IoT enabled fire system could deploy different measures to specific rooms, minimising damage to the broader facility. In future, it’s even possible that drones or robots could be released autonomously, and sent to help fight the fire in lieu of real people.
As with many hyped technology, the IoT has died down in public conversations – but this shouldn’t be mistaken for it having gone away. The potential of inter-connected devices and data analysis is too great to ignore, and the benefits to fire safety and the protection of lives should bring it to a building near you soon.