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Vol. LIX, No. 1
January 12, 2007

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New Fire Alarm System Leads Campus Security Upgrades

A view from Rockville Pike shows construction of the new two-level Visitor Center, one of three components of the Gateway project.

Emergency notification speakers (shown here on Bldg. 29, in closeup and in perspective) are just one component of the project to upgrade the campus fire alarm reporting system and all building internal fire alarm systems. Speakers will be installed inside and outside buildings to provide instructions on when to initiate evacuation or when there is a need to “shelter in place.” The NIH Emergency Communications Center located in Bldg. 31 will be able to notify and provide emergency instructions to a portion of a building, an entire building or even multiple buildings all at one time depending on the nature of the emergency.

Fire protection staff, the Office of Research Facilities and myriad contractors are currently implementing a state-of-the-art fire alarm reporting and emergency notification project on the Bethesda campus.

The new system—which should be completed in the more than 60 campus buildings in about 3 years—will enable NIH firefighters to respond more quickly to emergency calls than is possible with the current system. Further, high-tech plans for an emergency evacuation system will be carried out, allowing employees quick and audible notification to either remain in a building—or to evacuate—if there is a chemical release, bomb scare or other potential threat to campus.

The idea for the project—which involves meticulously digging holes and “hard-wiring” (laying underground cables) each NIH building, then testing the system for efficacy—was hatched in the mid 1980s. But owing to financial considerations, it began only a few years ago, according to J.P. McCabe, NIH fire marshal and fire protection engineer. Along with Deputy Fire Marshal Sam Denny, Fire Chief Gary Hess and Ben Buck, project officer for ORF, the group is overseeing the endeavor, which is funded through the Fire Protection and Life Safety Building and Facility Program.

Currently, if a fire breaks out on campus, employees can use one of two ways to notify the fire department: either by making a phone call or by using the red pull stations located by each stairwell—like the fire alarms you may recall seeing in school.

The problem is “these devices send out old, antiquated information,” said Buck. “Plus, we can’t get replacement parts for the old fire alarms anymore. You have to remember, some of these buildings at NIH and the alarms have been up and running since the 1950s. We can’t fully rely on them.” Once the new alarms are installed, they will send a signal directly back to the NIH Fire Department in Bldg. 51 as well as to the Emergency Communications Center in Bldg. 31B. At both sites, lights will appear on a large map of campus, indicating which building is affected. The new system is designed to meet national fire codes.

With 9/11 serving as a catalyst, emergency evacuation plans call for loudspeakers to be installed both inside and outside of each NIH building, so both occupants and passersby can be advised what action to take (e.g., remain in the building, avoid entering the building) should an emergency arise.

Meanwhile, the NIH fire protection upgrades have been made in Bldgs. 30, 29 and 29A, while about 80 percent of the work has been completed in Bldg. 1.

The overall plan is to maintain the current fire alarm system while installation of new infrastructure is ongoing and then decommission the old alarms once the new system is in service.

According to McCabe, a similar fire and evacuation system is currently in place at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. NIH Record Icon

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