Fire Protection in Retail Sites image

Love it or hate it, shopping is an essential part of our lives.

Although much has been reported about the long-term demise of traditional retailing, the ‘retail experience’ is still fundamental to our buying decisions. So, for the time being at least, retailers continue to invest in creating unique and appealing environments where the customer’s focus is directed entirely towards purchasing.

Despite this dedication to aesthetics, the aspirational world of retail does of course still have to bow to the more mundane requirements of fire standards and safety regulations. And a good thing it does too.

Out of sight
Behind the glossy outer of many shops lie the workaday realities that come with fast-paced selling environments. Large stock deliveries frequently leave shop managers with storage problems. Boxes get piled high in unsuitable places, which increases fire risk through obstructed escape routes, blocked fire doors and large amounts of combustible material lying around.

These are of course the types of hazard that should be flagged up in the fire risk assessment and carefully monitored day-to-day. Indeed, many of these problems can be avoided with some simple steps like creating adequate storage at the design stage, adjusting delivery schedules and training all staff in the importance of good housekeeping.

Where style and substance collide
So, with sights firmly set on designs that entice the customer, safety basics can get ignored – and not just back-of-house.

The people who adjust partitions and signage are not always familiar with the layout of sprinkler system, the presence of beam detectors, the minimum clearance requirements of detectors and the location of their associated wiring. A misplaced screw or badly-positioned wall can have detrimental effects on fire system integrity.

Subject to a site survey confirming suitability, the installation of wireless detectors can help minimise the risk of accidental damage to cables. They are also quick to install and can be moved/adjusted in line with changing shop design layouts without the additional costs of diverting or running extra cables.

Another valuable solution is to choose fire panels that constantly monitor the loop/network for faults that would otherwise be hidden until an alarm were raised or tested at full load. Panels approved to the EN54-13 standard, such as the MxPro 5 from Advanced, make you aware of hidden faults by flagging up problems quickly and clearly. This gives staff time to investigate the cause of any issues – before a full alarm is initiated.

False alarm harm
Aesthetic impact is one thing, but an arguably greater threat to turnover comes from the disruption caused by false fire alarms.

The unnecessary evacuation that often results can lead to loss of turnover at the tills. The panic and confusion that can ensue provide ideal conditions for opportunists to steal goods. On top of that, particularly if the false alarms occur frequently, they can damage retailers’ reputations and drive custom elsewhere.

Ensuring that any fire system fitted in a retail environment provides high levels of false alarm protection therefore has to be a priority.

To ensure adequate coverage, it’s important to choose a fire system that operates at high speeds as this ensures the maximum possible time to check if an alarm is genuine. It should also give you a wide range of investigation delay and verification options, including delays by: device type, number of activated devices, device mode change and time of day/day of week – as a minimum.

AlarmCalm from Advanced offers a range of false alarm management features that ensure only genuine incidents initiate full alarm mode thereby minimising cost, inconvenience and complacency.

For example, while a store is open/occupied, investigation delays can be used to trigger a pre-programmed countdown as soon as a detector is activated. This gives staff time to attend the area in question and check if the alarm’s cause is reason to evacuate. If the detector activation is false, it’s easy to isolate the device and reset the control panel so customers are unaware of any issues. If fire has caused the activation, a second device or staff can immediately halt the delay. The system will then go into full alarm and staff can help get everyone in the shop to safety.

Programming verification times for the hours when the shop is closed/unoccupied means the system will automatically check if an activated device is genuinely in alarm before a fire condition is displayed on the panel.

Keeping control of costs
Not only do these solutions reduce unwelcome disturbance and potential damage to sales, they also help to avoid unnecessary engineer callout charges – an important consideration in this cost-conscious sector.

Another effective way of reducing callout fees is to choose a fire system that supports remote monitoring. The iP Gateway from Advanced for example, allows engineers to log in to the fire system from a remote location and check the nature of the fault. They can then assess whether a trip to site is necessary and if required, isolate the devices and reset the panel. They can then schedule in the maintenance based on having the correct tools/equipment in place ready to visit site.

Servicing is another critical area where technology can save time and money. Some panels, like Advanced’s MxPro 5, allow you to create proactive maintenance schedules. As they allow you to download analogue values and drift compensation, it is then easy to analyse the data and predict when devices are going to go into false alarm or fault. This feature is particularly helpful on larger and more complex sites where test schedules across diverse retail units with multiple ownership can be hard to control. Advanced’s service tool not only simplifies service scheduling by identifying devices that have not been checked recently, it also provides proof of servicing via reports that can be customised to meet users’ needs.

Location, location, location
Siting the fire panel can be contentious in retail spaces, especially if the shop is smaller, high-end and/or design-conscious.

Many fire panels are utilitarian at best, yet have to be situated within easy reach of fire crews – normally at the very front of the shop. However, according to retail design specialists, this is a critical area, where customers often make instant judgements about the store they’re entering. The immediate left and right walls are frequently recommended as the places where retailers should display their most enticing offerings – which are unlikely to include their fire panel!

Luckily, some fire system manufacturers are helping retailers to solve this dilemma. Advanced for example offers the TouchControl repeater panel. Its sleek, flush touchscreen design allows adverts and retailer images to be displayed when in standby. However, if a detector is activated, it instantly changes mode and provides firefighters with a clear, graphical display of the building/site and the area in fire.

In other cases, where full panels will be in sight of customers, some manufacturers are able to provide bespoke finishes so that they blend as smoothly as possible into the décor, as in the case of the Advanced panel created in Gucci black for the brand’s flagship Sloane Street store in London. In less chic, but no less brand-conscious settings, the simple ability to display the retailer’s logo on the panel’s screen shows attention to detail that reflects well on the company.

Large shopping malls face other location challenges. The highest priority for fire and rescue teams attending incidents at these difficult sites is fast location of the fire. Some panel manufacturers have tackled the problem by offering a custom-made panel service. By taking floor plans and using them as the basis for graphical mimics with colour-coding and LED indication, locating specific areas in fire becomes much more straightforward. Advanced’s AdSpecials service, allows you to create complex panels covering all the requirements of large-scale, distributed sites. It also gives you total control of every aspect of your panel’s design – from location of components, switch type and indication formats to labelling, enclosures and PCB design.

Clear communication
The ability to integrate the fire installation and building management systems with ease are further important factors to consider in larger and more complex retail sites.

The responsible person often has to keep check on several systems that monitor the retail site, including access control, CCTV and fire alarm. Unlike some loop or panel-based solutions requiring several access points, Advanced’s answer to this problem is straightforward and saves time in configuring and setting up remote connections. It involves the introduction to the network of a special unit, which uses a common industry-wide standard protocol (Modbus/BACnet), that is a single point gathering all data with simple integration back to one central location/PC making the system simple to use.

Also, where disruption to customers needs to be kept to the absolute minimum, it’s wise to choose a fire system that supports personal paging of fire messages to selected staff, so that only emergency incidents are ever brought to customers’ attention. Advanced’s LifeLine automatically sends information following a range of pre-programmed triggers including alarms, pre-alarms or device faults, giving staff the opportunity to instruct the public according to predetermined evacuation plans.

If a critical incident does occur, the system also needs to offer effective and reliable mass notification. This feature, when incorporated into a fire system that offers sophisticated cause and effect options is a very powerful way of achieving safe, phased evacuation and the best possible outcomes in fire situations.

So, protecting retail sites from fire is clearly an art and a science that requires careful consideration of each individual site. A guiding principle that fashion designer Vivienne Westwood applied to clothes can also be applied to your choice of fire protection: “Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity”.

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