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What are Open Protocol Systems and what are the Benefits?

We are often asked about “Open Protocol” or “Open Architecture” systems. Although this is quite a technical question, it is one of the fundamental issues to be addressed when specifying a fire detection and alarm system. In order to understand this issue it helps to consider the origins and basic principles of automatic fire detection systems, and then to consider the way the fire systems industry is structured.

All fire detection and alarm systems are technically similar. In very simple terms, they consist of numerous fire detection devices, including smoke detectors and “break glass” call points for example, which are connected to a central control panel. When a smoke detector detects smoke, it informs the control panel, which then turns on circuits of alarm sounders. Smoke detector operates, alarm sounders ring. (if you want to be really simple about it!)

The connection between the detection devices, alarm sounders and the control panel is either cabling or wireless. For simplicity, we will focus on systems where the devices are connected to the control panel by cabling, commonly called in the industry a “hard wired” system.

In the early days of automatic fire detection, smoke detectors and call points were really just switches. When they operated, they acted on an electrical circuit just like a light switch. You could have a number of devices on one circuit, called zones. So at least, when the alarm system activated, you could tell which floor of your building the alarm had activated on. A typical system would have a number of zones.

Although this type of system is still commonplace, today the zonally wired system is less popular and usually restricted to smaller premises. Modern systems operate more like computer networks where the devices and the control panel communicate with each other by means of digital signalling. This principle of operation offers a number of significant benefits. A smoke detector can, for example, tell the control panel exactly where it is (addressable) and rather than simply being a switch, can give the control panel more information about what exactly it is detecting (analogue). This enable the control panel software to make decisions on interpreting and acting upon the data it receives. These systems are called analogue addressable fire detection and alarm systems, sometimes simplified to “intelligent” systems. There is no doubt that these general principles have enabled the creation of very sophisticated fire detection systems indeed!

This brings us back to the question of “what is an “Open Protocol” system, and why is it important? The word “protocol” here refers to the communication method between the control panel and the systems devices. Obviously, all of the components of a system must be talking the same language!

The simple and most obvious way to achieve this is for all of the components of a system to be manufactured by the same company, and indeed there are a number of companies within the industry that do just that. Although this ensures compatibility, the problem with this scenario is that the system becomes proprietary. The protocol is “closed” and no one else can manufacture compatible equipment for that system.

This may not matter very much when the system is first purchased as the buyer has the opportunity to compare different systems and prices. However, this can become far more significant in the future when it comes to system maintenance, replacement parts and making changes to the system. Customers find themselves “locked in” to the original system (or a limited choice of their “authorised distributors”) resulting in a potentially uncompetitive situation.

There is, however, another side to the fire systems industry, which provides an alternative solution. Much of the industry is made up of “system integrators” who also supply complete systems. However, these companies don’t manufacture the component parts of the system. These are provided by a number of specialist manufacturers of detection products, including global brands such as Apollo, Hochiki and Nittan, and a number of independent control equipment manufacturers, such as Morley IAS and Kentec to name but two. These manufacturers supply their equipment to a wide choice of systems integrators who assemble and sell onto the end user complete systems based on the best and most suitable equipment from these manufacturers.

Naturally, these systems have their own “communication protocol”, generally determined by the chosen detector manufacturer, after all, everything does have to be compatible and talking the same language! But because the system components are available from a wide choice of suppliers, these systems are known as “Open Protocol” or “Open Architecture” systems.

The benefits of this structure to the system purchaser are significant. Access to the latest technology and the wider choice of equipment available make it far easier to provide the most suitable system for a particular requirement. More importantly, on-going system maintenance and support can be provided by a large number of specialist companies, giving a wider choice and therefore, competitive prices.

So, in summary, when considering a choice of systems, you need to consider whether you would rather have a closed protocol system or an open architecture system. Do you want to be locked into a single company for on-going service, support and maintenance?

Or, would you rather be in a market where you always have a choice. Where your supplier knows you have a choice and will strive to provide the top class service you want in order to keep your custom.

Of course, some companies are better at providing that level of service than others. Maybe you don’t have to look too far to find the best….


Whatever your fire safety systems requirement, Chameleon Systems are the perfect company to fulfill it.
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