Fire panels, or "annunciators," are electronic devices that display data on building conditions in one easily accessible location. When used by first responders during emergencies, the devices can save lives. In December 2005, the National Electrical Manufacturing Association (NEMA) released a comprehensive standard* that promises to make future annunciators even more useful decision-making tools to fire fighters at the scene, to commanders back at headquarters, or to building and emergency personnel rushing to a fire.
Developed with the help of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the U.S. fire alarm industry, the standard offers greater uniformity in design, operation and arrangement of fire panels, common symbols denoting fire-related building conditions, and equipment specifications concerning wireless and remote applications. The standardization effort should make real-time information of value clearly and quickly available for processing, planning and response. For instance, agreement on how to unambiguously represent conditions such as biochemical hazards or the locations of smoke vents and elevators should make the fire panels and related equipment much better tools for rapid decision-making. Similar display and message symbols also should save time and training funds currently needed to teach fire fighters to understand dissimilar fire panel systems. Finally, standardization is considered necessary for parallel efforts in the first responder community to develop a capability to transmit relevant, easy-to-understand building and fire emergency information to fire fighters prior to their arrival on the scene.
In a related development, NIST released proceedings of a July 26, 2005, workshop** held at its Gaithersburg, Md., campus in which fire safety personnel used laptops to simulate and to evaluate the usefulness of transmitting real-time fire panel data to dispatch centers and to officers at the scene monitoring fire fighters during an emergency. Participants considered four scenarios: (1) a hospital fire; (2) arson in a third-floor laboratory building room; (3) fire on the second floor of a two-story single family dwelling; and (4) an emergency medical call inside a large shopping mall. The final report lists almost 100 recommendations for improvements of current displays, ranging from suggestions for different colors for various fire conditions, better depiction of evacuation stairwell size, and even off-site screen printout capability.
*A copy of the NEMA annunciator standard, SB 30-2005 (Fire Service Annunciator and Interface), is available for purchase at http://www.nema.org/stds/sb30.cfm.
**NIST's Workshop on the Evaluation of a Tactical Decision Aid Display (NISTIR 7268) is available at http://fire.nist.gov/bfrlpubs/fire05/PDF/f05105.pdf (.pdf; download Acrobat Reader). The Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) sponsored the workshop via the NIST Office of Law Enforcement Standards (OLES).