It’s a Tough Choice…or is it?

As a fire safety expert, I’ve seen many businesses fall short when protecting their building and the lives within it.

It’s like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares most days for me. Like Gordon (without the swearing!), I don’t believe in quick fixes, but long-term solutions that are safe and legally compliant.

For many of our customers, once they know where they’ve gone wrong, they’re eager to put it right. However, there are many other businesses and commercial premises faced between a choice of what’s right and what’s cheap.

Most schools are restricted with tight budgets, which often means that most decisions come down to cost. Buying a fire alarm isn’t like buying a handbag, whereby if you buy designer or high-street, they still have the same function. One just happens to look a little swisher.

Also, handbags don’t help save lives.

Installing a fire alarm cheaply only paves the way for unnecessary costs later. Not to mention being a nightmare to maintain!

You can start by saving pennies, sacrificing safety on the way, only to part with many pounds down the line.

Who am I to Judge?

A very good question. I’ve been in the fire alarm industry for 25+ years and have seen money wasted on fire safety left, right and centre.

I’ve supported schools that have previously thrown away money on their fire alarms. Part of how I make money is by correcting the bad decisions and unprofessional workmanship carried out on fire alarms.

For that reason alone, you might be thinking ‘Hey, why moan about that?’ I’m glad you asked. It’s because I’m also a tax payer and it’s painful to see public bodies wasting money. Especially when I know what the costs could be.

How One School Drew the Short Straw

I was asked to tender (submit a cost proposal) for a fire alarm installation to a consultant working on behalf of a school on a no-win, no-fee basis.

The cost of the fire alarm would be covered by governmental funding, whereby the consultant would also extract their fee. However, for every £1 of funding available there are multiple schools bidding for it. The chance of the school winning that bid can be less than one in ten, depending on how many bids have been submitted, how much they are for and how much is in the funding pot.

The consultant would need approximately three quotes from three different fire alarm companies for comparison. Of those three, the cheapest would typically be favoured.

So, if we were to supply a tender, we’d only win if:

  1. The school won the bid, put forward by the consultant to the funding body
  2. Once won, we were the consultant’s cheapest choice to carry out the work

Doing it this way seemingly saves schools time (because they’re not doing the leg-work of getting prices and comparing companies themselves) and money (as if they win the bid, they won’t have to pay for the cost of the new alarm).

On the surface, it looks as though it’ll be a good deal all-round.

Where Have They Gone Wrong?

What this school doesn’t realise is that through this lengthy, filtered process, they’ll be left with a system that could be faulty. Plus it’ll likely be difficult to maintain due to poor installation practices.

By engaging a no-win, no-fee consultancy, they are offloading the responsibility, and the school’s entire fire safety strategy, to someone whose only interest is winning the bid so that they can claim their fee.

Another scenario would be that for the lifetime of the system, the school could be tied into using a maintenance company out of their control. Some fire alarm companies do not allow you to use anyone other than themselves once you’ve installed their system.

We’ve seen it before where a school wanted us as their maintenance provider, but were locked in with another provider. This resulted in them paying up to £20k per year for maintenance instead of what should have been approximately £5k. That’s £15k extra per year wasted because the right questions didn’t get asked by the people who were responsible.

When a job’s won solely on price, the profit margin for the winning contractor is slim. That often means the temptation to cut corners will be high. If the school has no one fighting their corner, they will be the ones left paying the price.

Schools don’t buy fire alarms often, nor should they if they’ve got a reliable system and a trusted maintenance provider. But when they do install a new system, great care should be taken when deciding who’s right for the job.

Have you taken into consideration the overall quality of the service, the thoroughness of the design, and the compatibility with the level of cover required from the fire risk assessment?

Questions Schools Need to Ask:

  • What is the reputation of the fire alarm installation company, and are they BAFE accredited?
  • Will I be able to find parts for this over the next 10 years or is supply limited?
  • Can any fire alarm company maintain this alarm once installed?
  • What will I have to do if there are any building extensions?
  • Where is the product in its lifecycle*?
  • Is there a warranty on the alarm?

If all of these factors were considered, not only cost, schools would be more likely to get a quality product installed by a trusted provider. This may mean more of up-front capital, but it will pay for itself time-and-time-again by being reliable and commercially available. Plus, they could have the system maintained by a contractor of the school’s choice instead of one they’re stuck with.

All the best,

Paul Field
Chief School Fire Safety Supporter

If you work for a school and you’re in need of a new fire alarm, or an analysis of your current fire safety strategy, please feel free to reach out and give us a call on 01277 724 653 – we’d be happy to talk you through your options.

*Lifecycles refers to a product model, which due to the accreditations required, tends to be lengthy for fire safety products. When you compare it to CCTV equipment, the quality of cameras, for example, is often modified every six months. Fire alarm control panels have an average lifecycle of 8-10 years. This is further extended when the manufacturer releases a replacement in parallel, whilst slowing phasing out the older product. Some manufacturers, however, don’t do this, so both supply and support abruptly comes to a halt. The older the equipment, the more likely the latter is to occur.

N.B. ‘Lifecycles’ is not the same as ‘lifespan’, which means how long the system should last before you’ll need a new one. For example, you may have an older alarm fitted (i.e. it’s been on the market for some time) but its lifespan will be approximately 15 years as it was newly installed. Fire alarm systems last anywhere between 10 and 20 years depending on if it’s wired or wireless (radio), how well it was initially installed and how it has been maintained over the years.

Schools Saving Pennies Sacrificing Fire Safety

It’s a Tough Choice…or is it? As a fire safety expert, I’ve seen many businesses fall short when protecting their building and the lives within it.It’s like

The questions you NEED to be asking about your fire alarm (but don’t)

How long will my new commercial fire alarm last for?
What is the lifetime cost of the system?
Do I have a choice on who supports me?

All important questions, right?  Unfortunately though, you probably don’t answer these questions.

Instead, all your focus is on the tip of the iceberg.

Which I understand, especially when “a fire alarm does nothing for you”.

It’s a dead cost.

The only time you’ll appreciate the thousands you’ve spent on your fire alarm is when you’re alone on the first floor of your office and the system detects smoke on the ground floor. It gives you just enough time to escape with your life.

That’s when it’s worth much more than whatever you spent on it.

Experience is revealing

Reflecting on 26 years in the commercial fire alarm industry made me question;

‘How long should a commercial fire alarm last for?’

But the bigger question hidden under the waterline is ‘What’s the true lifetime cost?’

Taking into account not only the monetary cost but more personally, the hassle and time you spend managing it.

Let’s assume you’ve done your due diligence.

You know what type of system you need.

And, you know what job the system is doing for you.

Then I recommend you have a quick read of my blog post on what fire alarm do I need? as this covers the fire alarm system design.

 

The 3 Distinct Fire Alarm Considerations

There are 3 distinct parts to a commercial fire alarm. I could list them all, but we’d be here all day if I did, so I’ve stuck to the main 3:

  1. Infrastructure – Is it Wired or Radio (wireless)?
  2. Control Panel – This could be a network of panels required to support the size of system you’ve installed.
  3. Devices – Smoke Detectors, Heat Detectors, Manual Call Points (a.k.a. Break Glass Units) and Sounders (these could be Bells or Electronic sounders). There are other types of detection such as Air Sampling (a.k.a. VESDA), Fire Beam detectors, Flame detection and Linear Heat Detection Cable.

(There are far more than I’ve listed above, like Voice Alarm Systems – PA systems that play pre-recorded messages)

 

How most people choose

The question that I’ve highlighted is How long should a commercial fire alarm system last for?’.

 The answer depends on the planning at the initial stage. Here’s why…

When you plan a fire alarm installation, whether you know it or not, you’re actually determining how long it’ll last for and the lifetime cost you’ll have to bear.

Most people dive into a fire alarm purchase without any consideration for the things that I am going to explain.

In my experience, the planning most people put into buying a fire alarm revolves around one thing.

‘Drum roll please’

Yep, you guessed it…

THE PRICE

Actually, I don’t see this as a real problem.

You should be getting the best value for your money.

But, people often get this so wrong as THE PRICE, is not really THE PRICE…

…Let me explain.

 

What is the price of a commercial fire alarm?

To determine the price you need to understand the lifespan of the fire alarm. To do this you need to understand how a commercial fire alarm is put together.

To help explain this, let’s talk about a wired commercial fire alarm;

First, you have the wiring or infrastructure.

Then the equipment.

Then – the most important thing that’s rarely considered, but is the rest of the iceberg – the cost of maintenance.

 

  1. How long will commercial fire alarm wiring last for?

Typically, the wiring, if installed properly, (which means supported above ceilings, terminated within proper back-boxes using glands and fixed to the building structure so that in a fire the cables don’t fall and strangle firefighters) will last you well in excess of 20 years. I’d expect this to be nearer 30 years, but this depends on lots of things that revolve around the quality of install carried out.

  1. How long will commercial fire alarm devices last for?

There’s no one answer to this question. It’s generally around 8-10 years, but some manufacturers won’t give a ‘life expectancy. However, the market leader, Apollo Fire Detectors, have stated that a detector should last around 10 years if installed in an ideal environment. This is generally accepted throughout the industry and is my recommendation to you.

 

  1. What’s the lifetime cost of a commercial fire alarm?

Knowing that you get 20+ years from the wiring and 10 from the equipment, you can see that your maximum time before replacing fire alarm parts will be 10 years. So in essence, it’s a fairly easy sum to work out. Find the split between parts and labour and add 2 parts to 1.5 labour and divide by 20. You’ve now got the raw monetary cost, which is the easy part, now let’s talk about the ‘living with’ costs;

  • What is the maintenance cost?
  • What support will I need in call-outs to unwanted alarms?
  • What will my expected costs be for changes to the building over the lifespan?

But – and this is a big BUT – whatever these costs are will be greatly affected by one misunderstood factor…

The manufacturer of your alarm system, and its access to the market. This can affect your costs by 25-50%. The variation is so large because often manufacturers have restrictions on supply and maintenance.

 

My Advice

Do your homework.

NEVER install a system that’s closed or managed protocol.

This requires a whole explanation in itself.

It’s fair to say you’ll pay more if you use anything that has restrictions on its supply to the market. When you raise this issue with manufacturers they bamboozle you with statements about restricting it to ‘trained experts’. That ‘anyone can service it’, without explaining the reality of living with it. It’ll cost you more in the long run.

The best piece of advice is that you should invest time into checking your supplier.

Use a professional company that has recommendations from actual customers. You’ll find that their expertise will help you to avoid repenting a hasty decision over the next ten years.

Take your time in planning your installation.

Involve building users, fire risk assessors, local authorities and other interested parties.

It’s a big decision and shouldn’t be made in a rush.

To talk to us about which fire alarm systems you should be considering, don’t hesitate to give us a call and we’ll be more than happy to chat – the number’s 01277 724 653.

Commercial fire alarm iceberg

The questions you NEED to be asking about your fire alarm (but don't) How long will my new commercial fire alarm last for? What is the lifetime cost of the sys

If you had to do the maintenance, would you have chosen the fire or security system you have?

Once a building has been refurbished, the project finished and the building is in use, its the people charged with maintenance who will find out what its like to live with the installed systems.

My experience is that ‘new installations’ is a particularly competitive marketplace in which to operate, I’ve lost jobs on price where my competitor is installing for less than my cost, and have seen that more often than not the client takes the opportunity to ‘save’ money, but what’s the real cost?

The real cost will materialise over the coming years and you’ll find its not that evident in the immediate period following the installation; i.e. within the defects period as its not difficult to get ‘snags’ looked into, the real issues begin after year one when the maintenance manager or team start to find the real issues, which are;

Typical ‘fails’

  1. Think about it, you get what you pay for; if the installation is poor, then time-consuming but vital things are missed such as cable readings at first fix stage, the implications of which will cause odd faults or worse false alarms for years, the things we see upon taking over maintenance are cables laying on ceiling tiles – as they are quicker to install if you don’t bother with drilling and clipping correctly, we see cables connected to building earth which will mean that other electrical system will affect your system. If you ask the ‘cheap’ installer about this they are hardly going to say “what do you expect for the money” however this is the reality of going ‘cheap’.
  2. You have had a closed or managed protocol system installed which practically means over the lifetime of the system you’ll pay more for service and parts, often paying a great deal more than you saved on the original works, and the thing that is often overlooked is the extra time that dealing with systems like this will take from you, which has a cost. This cost can be as much as 10 times the cost of maintaining an ‘open’ system.
  3. You have equipment installed in places that anyone in their right mind can see if going to cause problems to be maintained correctly, typically too high or in an area where access is difficult or perhaps where you can’t get to in normal working hours, putting up the maintenance cost and likelihood that things will get left as they live in the difficult list of things to do pile.

Good news! You can avoid this, my basic checklist is below, but the thing that I would advise you to do more than anything is, consider your purchase in the context of the lifetime cost of the system, not on getting a bargain now as you will already know that’s not how it works.

Checklist

  • Make sure you have a detailed specification, put together by an experienced and qualified consultant (get references) – This is worth every penny
  • Make sure you are involved with what you want from the system, involve your maintenance team, the security team, local authorities and any other stakeholders – They will probably know more about the ‘pitfalls’ than you, ask for the issues they have or have had with current or previous systems
  • Take your time making sure the specification is correct and that your installer understands how you work and manage out most of the potential problems
  • Find out what the lifetime costs are for this system, how long the warranty lasts for and what the ongoing ‘predictable’ costs are.
  • Get references for the installer and make sure you have copies of accreditations and suitable insurance that actually covers what they are doing for you

You can avoid these ‘nightmares’ but if you find yourself living with one, then look into solutions as they are there, there is technology on the market that will more or less solve any issue you have.

If you would like any specific support for fire and security systems then I am happy to help.

Paul Field – Head of long-term solutions for WFP Fire & Security

Fire out more about Fire Alarm Maintenance at the link below.

Avoiding maintenance nightmares

If you had to do the maintenance, would you have chosen the fire or security system you have? Once a building has been refurbished, the project finished and the building is in use, its the

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