Two-way radio/alarm integration: cutting though the chaos
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Sam Fenwick delves into the business of integrating two-way radio systems with alarms and alerting systems, with plenty of tips for resellers and end-users

One of the most popular and effective ways to add value to a two-way radio system is to integrate it with the end-user’s alarm system, thereby allowing on-premise staff to respond quicker and (especially in the case of hotels and student accommodation) facilitating a ‘double-knock’ approach, in which a preliminary alarm can be investigated without immediately triggering a full-scale evacuation or a fire brigade call-out.

Matt Wright, CEO of GlobalView Systems, says two of the big trends at the moment are the need to integrate and work with a range of communication protocols and devices (such as DMR Tier III, TETRA and PTT over Cellular) along with clients’ need to be able to respond faster to alerts, while having fewer resources on-site. He adds that it is an interesting time for the market given the rise of Industry 4.0/connected manufacturing and IoT – “There’s a lot coming together now and that’s really interesting”, as such technologies increase the extent to which an alarm-handling solution can be tailored to address a site’s specific problems on-site and meet a client’s exact requirements.

He says the best opportunities are around integration with multinational manufacturers’ programmable logic controllers (PLCs), particularly as previously strong demand in the education sector has waned, and Wright attributes this to the “dreaded” uncertainty that Brexit has created, with universities being shy on funding, given concerns about attracting foreign students.

The emergency stop
Klaus Allion, managing director, ANT Telecom, says it has delivered a system to a major automobile manufacturer, which is integrated into its production line to cause it to automatically and very quickly stop when a man-down alert is triggered on one of the factory workers’ two-way radios. This was prompted by an incident in which a worker in the painting area fell down and needed a colleague to stop the line very quickly to prevent them from being grabbed and dragged by the moving line and seriously injured. This required integration with the company’s PLC, and to address concerns around whether this could be introduced without harming production, ANT provided the customer with a pilot system prior to full-scale deployment. “They have a test PLC, which works exactly like the fully operational PLC that [controls] the production line. We integrated [our system] into the test PLC first and after that has been done and has been tested, it was signed off and absolutely fine.” Allion recommends this approach as one way to reduce potential customers’ concerns.

Ola Gwozdz, head of innovation and business development at PMR Products (which offers its SafetyNet Alarm Processor (SNaP) to allow status information to be transmitted to two-way radios and mobile phones), says when her company integrates its technology with plant or machinery systems, “we tend to talk directly to the manufacturers, so there [are] non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and [other agreements regarding the handling of intellectual property] and [discussions as to] what’s allowed and what is not allowed”. She adds that this process is quite involved given concerns about voiding warranties, and all sorts of other issues.

One size does not fit all
One of the key reasons to engage plant managers and the other individuals who will most benefit from two-way radio alarm integration is to enlist their help in overcoming resistance from other parts of the business who may not understand its value or see it as something that will generate additional work for them. Such resistance can sometimes be considerable. Allion recalls discussing alarm integration with a very large organisation’s IT department and asking if they could set up a meeting with their plant manager and operations manager, only to be told: we’d rather not because they might want it in the end.

He adds that while “IT departments are quite understandably concerned about any potential security risks they might introduce into their network, and we very often get policy templates and questionnaires which [run] over pages to fill out to ensure that our solution complies with data security and cyber security”, these are often written with company payroll systems in mind and/or very critical production systems. He therefore questions whether these should be inflexibly applied to systems that “can be massively beneficial in terms of safety or efficiency”. Allion gives the example of a discussion he had regarding a lone-worker system where the company involved was concerned about it storing and processing staff-related data.

“All we were processing was a mobile number and potentially a person’s name. Now, I can understand concern about staff data if it includes bank and [salary] details, but I cannot understand the concern if we’re only talking about a person’s company mobile number and this being transmitted in case of an alarm or a person’s alarm. What’s more relevant, a person’s safety when they’ve fallen down and we need to raise an alert quickly and get help, or that we might transmit a person’s name and a mobile phone number, which could be seen by someone who hacks into the system? What do they gain by doing that and who would hack into a system that just does lone-worker safety?”

Gwozdz says “using TETRA is a huge advantage because it’s very secure [and] doesn’t expose us to mainstream networks like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – that’s quite important in those scenarios”. She adds that PMR Products has installed, manages and is expanding a TETRA network for a customer that runs along a tunnel that is under construction and will be 8km long once complete. The network is used to collect critical data from a range of alarm systems, including those for fire and air quality. This data is then turned into notifications in the form of voice prompts and/or text messages to the radios, along with text messages to mobile phone users and emails. The system also allows actions to be performed such as stopping a production process or deactivating/pausing an alarm until it can be investigated. In addition, the information the system generates is shared with the fire services, so that when an alarm occurs, “they can see how many people are in that specific section”, allowing them to better plan the search and rescue effort.

What’s the problem?
One thing all my interviewees agree on is the importance of getting the key stakeholders and decision-makers together early and spending the time and effort to properly identify the problem(s) that the system is intended to solve and understand how the client operates.

“For example,” says GlobalView’s Wright, “if you want to link into a school fire alarm system and you can prove to the decision-makers [the impact that unnecessary/false alarms have] on students’ downtime, Ofsted [inspections] and exam results, [along with] the general disruption they cause to the running of the school, you have to then articulate to them [the need to get the company that holds the maintenance contract for their alarm system involved early on. That’s] imperative, because the hidden costs start to rise if they need an option board inside their alarm system.”

He adds that if the preparation isn’t done properly and the key players aren’t involved, “you just get into a half-complete solution where costs are rising, the client becomes unhappy and you get a stand-off position between you and whoever is supposed to look after the alarm system, which is always unhelpful”.

PMR Products’ Gwozdz adds: “I’ve seen so many systems that have been deployed that are completely irrelevant or are just a health and safety exercise that hasn’t been properly thought through and [are] actually more of a hindrance than a help to the client.”

Conversely, she notes that in most situations where “there is a real problem and if the design of the system is very well thought through”, the use of automated alarm handling results in significant cost savings. She adds that one system PMR Products deployed – a fully automated solution – has saved the customer £1m in just three years of operation.

Gwozdz emphasises the importance of understanding how the client operates: “Is it necessary for the end-user to be receiving every single alarm notification? [That quickly] becomes an annoyance and then it becomes ignored, and [then] when something happens, nobody responds to it. Sometimes having too much information can create a problem in itself.”

Staying on this theme, Wright recommends that end-users regularly test their alarm systems and, when they do, make sure that the escalation path is correct and that the right people are included within it. “We’ve had a situation before where they wanted the managing director to be the first point of contact in the escalation path, and that was to his mobile phone because he was typically not on-site. That was done and, lo and behold, within the first few tests the MD realised ‘hell, this is nothing I want, it should be someone who is supervisor-level or management-level on-site that’s dealing with the first line and I should be third line’. ”

He highlights the value of a blended approach – being able to send out alerts to a range of devices and in a variety of formats, given that factory workers are likely to have two-way radios, but their supervisors or managers may well be walking around with DECT phones or smartphones. Simply put, when putting together the escalation path, you need to know which device(s) everyone who may need to be contacted regularly carries. Wright adds that GlobalView can send messages to PCs/laptops (if they are connected to the site’s network), two-way radios (both display and non-display), SMS, “or indeed any IP-based message stream”.

It is worth noting here the way in which location services (such as the use of Bluetooth beacons in combination with two-way radios) can be used in combination with alarm systems and geofencing to generate tailored alerts should an employee stray into a dangerous zone or one that requires personal protective equipment (PPE). PMR Products offers this capability but, interestingly, Gwozdz says “we haven’t gone down the Bluetooth route”, instead opting for its own battery-powered beacon-based system that was developed before Bluetooth was a viable option for location services; and Gwozdz claims it can’t be hacked, an essential requirement given that a lot of PMR Products’ deployments are in mission-critical settings.

Part of the appeal of two-way radio/alarm integration from a provider’s perspective is that it is far removed from simply ‘box-shifting’ and therefore commands a premium, or at the very least helps to defend margins. That said, this creates some constraints when going beyond simple fire-alarm panel integrations. Gwozdz says while PMR Products has some resellers who integrate SNaP into their own deployments, “because quite a lot of it is bespoke and we end up being quite involved, it’s difficult to do on a large scale, so it makes more sense for us to sell directly; however, we do have systems out there that have been supplied by our partners”. She adds that although PMR Products mainly supplies to Europe, it has live systems in the US and New Zealand, which require it to rely heavily on its partners.

We have seen just how powerful and versatile alarm integration can be and discussed some of the issues around its implementation. But, before we go, it is worth considering the extent to which this field’s importance is increasing due to the uncertain times that we live in. As Wright says: “ [There’s] the reduction in workforce numbers, which means you’ve got fewer people to do the same jobs, terrorism, the rise of malicious attacks, protesters in certain areas causing disruption, and the need for anti-drone capabilities around airports. So, there’s never been a more heightened time to manage your alarms more efficiently and effectively.”

The right tools for the job
GlobalView Systems’ Matt Wright emphasises the need for system integrators and resellers to invest in training their employees and says that “giving them the tools to interrogate a serial output from a panel is quite important – there are a number of logic analysers and small devices that will tell you what’s coming out of a port when you generate [an] alarm and so on. If you’re lucky enough to have a radio systems [engineer] who is also pretty good with electronics and analysing signals from non-radio devices then you’re in a very strong position. Where we come in is we can help the teams on-site, we offer our services for installation, we make it simpler. Our job is to train and educate, but [resellers’ engineers have] to be willing to look beyond two-way radio and [their companies’ need to] give them the tools to do this job effectively.”

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