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The Fire Alarm Panel


Fire Alarm Command Panels can provide vital information to the first-due units and the incident commander. Photo Keith Witt

Most new high-rise buildings—and some older, updated ones—are equipped with certain building systems that can be used to help us meet the many challenges faced in high-rise incidents. It’s up to us through pre-fire planning to identify buildings containing these systems and become familiar with their operation. In doing so, we can increase our odds for a successful outcome.

One of the most important systems that we should become familiar with is the Fire Alarm Command/Annunciator Panel. Such panels aren’t present in older high-rise buildings unless the building was updated during a renovation project or retro-fitted due to a code change within your jurisdiction. When they are available, however, they can provide vital information to the first-due units and the incident commander.

Locating the Fire
Upon arrival at the scene, the first-in company should immediately proceed to the alarm panel. The panel is usually located somewhere in the first floor lobby, and is a good place to consider establishing the Lobby Command Post. If you’re unable to find the panel, check with building maintenance or security for the location.

If an automatic fire alarm was transmitted for the building, the panel will show the type of alarm (smoke, heat or sprinkler activation) and the general location within the building from where the alarm is being transmitted. If the response is for a 9-1-1 call reporting a fire, and we see on the panel that an automatic alarm has also been transmitted, there’s a good chance that we may have a bona fide incident.

Note: Don’t just make a hasty ascent to the location indicated on the alarm panel. Sometimes, the first automatic alarm transmitted from a smoke detector is from a location remote from the point of ignition. Because smoke spread in high-rise structures can be unpredictable due to variables such as the “stack effect,” you may unexpectedly find yourself above the fire. The fire alarm panel can help you put the pieces of the puzzle together upon arrival, but it’s not an absolute. You must continue to gather information, preferably before ascending above grade level. Check with security, the building engineer or maintenance personnel, and the building occupants as part of your initial size-up to try to verify the location of the fire or incident.

Alarm panels can be used to help locate fires, communicate with building occupants and triage calls for assistance. Photo Keith Witt

Communicating with Occupants
Most Fire Alarm Command Panels contain a built in PA system that serves the building. If the alarm panel contains this feature, it can be a huge asset in communicating with the building occupants to inform them what’s taking place. Usually this system can be used to communicate with the entire building at once, or isolated to communicate with individual floors or sections of the building. Upon arrival, a member assigned to the command panel should inform occupants that the fire department is here investigating a fire or incident, and instruct them to remain in their apartments or offices and wait for further information. This will assist in controlling occupant movement within the building.

If the alarm is false, or the incident is minor, the information can be relayed to the occupants and an all-clear can be transmitted. If the fire investigation team (FIT) verifies a fire, they can relay information to the building occupants, directing them to either shelter in place, or to proceed to the evacuation stairwell (keeping them away from the fire attack stairwell).

Communicating with the building occupants can help to keep panic to a minimum. The member assigned to the panel must be confident in the task and take care not to transmit panicky announcements, which are counterproductive to the operation. Periodic updates should be transmitted to keep occupants informed throughout the incident.

Another feature that may be present on the fire command panel is a fire phone. Usually red, this phone is a party line connected to phones located in the stairwells. These phones are usually placed every three to five floors, depending on local codes. They may also serve the elevators. They can be used as an alternate means of communication between firefighters or command officers working above grade and in the Lobby Command Post when radio communication is compromised.

Alarm panels often have a red firefighter phone that can be used for communicating with emergency phones in the stairwells if other methods of communication are unavailable. Photo Keith Witt

Triaging Calls for Help
As the incident begins to unfold, the incident commander may begin to receive reports from fire dispatchers for occupants trapped or in need of assistance. At times, these calls can become overwhelming. Some calls may be legitimate and others may be due to panic. We must try to get as much information about each call as possible. Although all calls for assistance must be investigated, those in the most danger should be addressed first. We can use the alarm panel as a tool to help us triage these calls, and help determine who may or may not be exposed to smoke conditions. By checking the alarm panel for smoke detectors that are tripping, we can get an idea of how the smoke is moving or stratifying throughout the building. We can compare this information with the calls for assistance, and information about conditions received from firefighters operating in the building, to help to determine who may be in danger.

Know Before You Go
The Fire Alarm Command Panel is just one of the building systems available to assist us in meeting the challenges of high-rise incidents. It is up to individual fire departments to know which buildings have these systems and which don’t, through pre-fire planning. In larger cities it may be nearly impossible to preplan all buildings; however, we all respond to these buildings on a daily basis for automatic fire alarms, EMS runs, special-duty service calls or routine inspections. Whatever our reason for being in a high-rise building, when our primary task is completed, we should take a few extra minutes to see what type of system, if any, exists, then become familiar with the system and how it operates.

A couple of extra minutes now can make all the difference later when we get the call that turns out to be the real deal.

Authored By: BFC Keith Witt

Keith Witt is a 32-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) and currently holds the rank of battalion chief, assigned to the 18th Battalion in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in public safety management from Lewis University. Witt is also a lead instructor in the CFD’s Officer Training Program, a Field Staff Instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute, and the National Fire Academy. Firefighter safety and survival has become one of his top priorities and motivations.