Parts 16 and 24 of the EN54 fire safety standard are due to come into force in 2011. What are the implications for the PA/VA sector - reinvigoration, or simply less innovation? Phil Ward reports
Manufacturers - and others with a vested interest in VA and VACIE (voice alarm control and indicating equipment)- are supposed to have conformed and complied with the requirements of Part 16 and Part 24 of the EU's fire alarm and detection standard EN54, by the end of March 2011 and the end of April 2011 respectively.
These are the sections that deal with the component parts of all construction products that manage fire alarms: from the signals they produce to how they're controlled; how, exactly, they indicate the status of emergencies and to whom; and how they overcome faults.
Inevitably this means a procession of health and safety clipboards through the factories of most installation-minded brands - and several of their supply-chain partners - right now. Anything brought to market after that 2011 deadline can't be given a CE mark unless it satisfies the criteria of Part 16 and Part 24, at whatever cost, and anything used on the market by specifiers and installers after that date will have to carry one - stamped EN54-16 and EN54-24.
What the market has to decide now is whether this is just another Brussels directive to lump, or whether it represents a valuable opportunity to raise the bar and gain a competitive edge. So who's in the driving seat?
IE has spoken with a select few market leaders who have one thing in common: a grasp of audio quality that should, in theory, enable them to spearhead better systems and better integration of VA and PA as the directive takes hold.
Not surprisingly the large corporate manufacturers have spotted this directive early on the radar. Both Martijn van Overveld, product marketing manager at Bosch, and Brett Downing, sales & marketing director at TOA, are quick to point out the potential advantages of the new standards to those organisations that have the greatest market share.
"Recognising the general trend for integration, and especially the combination of fire and voice evacuation in overall security systems, Bosch is committed to producing systems and components that are compliant with all the latest quality and safety standards, including EN54-16," comments van Overveld.
"Whether the EN54-16 standard will be implemented Europe-wide is not a question to Bosch. The standard subscribes to ensuring that voice alarm control and indicating equipment provides the best possible communication for users, installers, the public and fire brigades, as well as providing uncompromised system availability and system supervision. Furthermore EN54-16 will play a significant role in the market for voice evacuation as the member states of the European Union will in the future be obliged to replace their local standards with the EN54-16 standard."
"The primary reason for using a voice alarm system instead of the coded warnings given by sounders is to reduce the time taken for those at risk to recognise that an emergency exists, and to give clear instructions on what to do next," adds Downing. "This means that voice alarm loudspeakers need to achieve a minimum acoustical performance, as well as constructional and environmental requirements, to be suitable for use in fire-detection and fire-alarm systems."
Acoustical performance is at the heart of Part 24, a second-phase implementation that comes into force in April 2011, one month after Part 16. While EN54-16 specifies requirements, methods of test and performance criteria for voice alarm control and indicating equipment for use in fire-detection and fire alarm systems, Part 24 specifies requirements, test methods and performance criteria for loudspeakers intended to broadcast a warning of fire between a fire-detection and fire-alarm system and the occupants of a building.
Downing expands further on the acoustic imperatives of effective VA. "EN54-24 recognises that the exact nature of the acoustical requirements for voice alarm loudspeakers will vary according to the nature of the space into which they are installed," he says. "It therefore specifies the minimum requirements that apply to voice alarm loudspeakers and a common method for testing their operational performance against parameters specified by the manufacturers.
"This European standard gives common requirements for the construction and robustness of voice alarm loudspeakers as well as their performance under climatic and mechanical conditions which are likely to occur in the service environment. As the types of loudspeaker considered in the standard are passive electro-mechanical devices not involving sensitive electronic circuits, electro-magnetic compatibility (EMC) tests have not been included. The loudspeakers have been classified in either an indoor or an outdoor application environment category.
"The standard requires that manufacturers specify certain characteristics in a consistent manner so that designers can make objective decisions about which loudspeaker to use in specific applications. It does not cover loudspeakers for special applications, such as loudspeakers for use in hazardous applications, if such applications require additional or other requirements or tests than those given in this European standard. The standard is not intended to cover addressable loudspeakers, loudspeakers with active components."
Neil Voce is MD of Ateïs UK, the recently established UK division of the multinational PA/VA manufacturer. For him, the challenge ahead is to balance pro-audio solutions with the system-wide pressures of the fire alarm industries.
"Ateïs is giving a guarded welcome to the introduction of EN54-16," he says. "We're pressing ahead with the process of getting our kit fully stamped to the standard. It's a very expensive step, both in terms of the costs for testing and the small alterations that are needed to the kit to ensure compliance.
"Having recently worked for a fire alarm manufacturer which owned our VA brand - Millbank - I know that the standards are being driven hard by the fire alarm companies and that they tend to be large enough to influence them and, of course, to afford to implement them. I was also witness to the huge efforts put in by my previous company in ensuring that once EN compliance was achieved, it required a lot of maintenance. Believe me, EN compliance is not an easy option."
"For specifiers and integrators the EN standard will mean that systems and speakers have to be tested by an independent third party, and cannot be self-certified," confirms Downing. "The cost of this is very high; consequently only manufacturers that have deep pockets can afford to do it, which will limit the choice for specifiers."
Consultant Roland Hemming is in no doubt about the long-term consequences of the new standards. "EN54 will introduce arguably the biggest changes to the voice alarm industry since the first standards were introduced," he states.
"They will affect the voice alarm specialists as well as professional audio companies that make their systems voice-alarm compliant. It will bring the two closer together. The problem is that EN54 still sits alongside many other standards: BS5839, EN60849 and ISO7240. For those who also work in stadiums in the UK we also have to consider BS7827 and The Green Guide."
But is the standard likely to invigorate the PA/VA market by encouraging replacement, or slow it down by adding bureaucracy? Downing is philosophical about the realities of the European market. "The voice alarm market is driven by European standards, and there will always be a requirement," he says. "However, it is conceivable that we could take a route similar to America and have two systems running side by side: PA and VA. But that will only happen if manufacturers increase their prices dramatically while, at the same time, the implications of EN54 Part 24 limit the choice of speaker type. Under those circumstances there is a justified argument for placing two systems side by side."
"All of these standards contradict each other in some places and all standards are open to some degree of interpretation," points out Hemming. "Different territories put a different emphasis on what is important. Buildings are complex places and you can't have a means of evacuation that is too prescriptive anyway. The fact that there is some flexibility is one of the ways in which these standards make buildings safer.
"There is also a degree of protectionism in how some standards are drafted. It took many years for BS5839 to recognise that computers and fibre optics could be used. This was due to the fact that some parts of the industry didn't make their systems work using those methods. Some have argued that EN54 will raise the barrier at which manufacturers can enter the voice alarm market: that remains to be seen once the standard comes into force properly."
So what are the implications for manufacturers, particularly in terms of the timescales for producing compliant equipment? Downing has some accurate figures. "It takes around 600 hours (three months) to complete a full test - and if it doesn't pass, the whole process starts again where it failed," he reveals.
"The problem is that there are very few accredited laboratories in Europe, and even fewer with any acoustic knowledge. Booking space in advance will become increasingly difficult nearer the deadlines. TOA is the first company to have full certification on its power supplies of EN54 Part 4, which became mandatory on 1 August 2009. We're already well underway to meet the schedule for other VA products."
On that basis, thinks Voce, some sectors of the industry may struggle to keep up. "It has to be said that the voice alarm industry in the UK has grown out of cottage industries and family firms, and our firms are still very small in comparison to our larger fire cousins," he says.
"There will be firms that sell equipment as VA that just won't be able to afford to continue. Nor will you be able to mix and match manufacturers' kit, as the equipment certification will be for systems - not system components. By implementing EN, we are creating a barrier to entry that would have prevented many of the UK's best-loved VA manufacturers from ever getting started - and you can only be sad that some of the innovation that we thrive on here will be stifled.
"On the other hand, some of the systems that are cobbled together aren't really fit for purpose, and we must applaud their removal from the market. What concerns me is whether the directive will actually be policed. Many things - including dodgy CE marking, illegal radio microphones and similar - have slid by without anyone really prosecuting those who have done wrong.
"If Ateïs has spent a substantial six-figure sum getting all the approvals, we're going to be disappointed if others carry on regardless. I'm also concerned about manufacturers getting bogus certificates where their claims to compliance do not come from the proper licensed authority. As far as I'm aware, only LPCB, BSI and VDS are testing for EN54, but I've seen a 'certificate' from another, unlicensed test house and that manufacturer appears to be claiming to have product approval. So, who's in place to sort this out? Are we just self-regulating our third-party certification?"
The big guns are already firing, nevertheless. Earlier this year TOA launched the VM-3000 Series PA/VA system, billed as "fully compliant with the new EN54-16 European safety and security standard". Bosch has made its own response. "Our Praesideo Public Address & Emergency Sound System set the benchmark for the evacuation market from the time it was introduced," claims van Overveld, "and its functionality already covered most of the requirements that are now included in the EN54-16 standard.
"With the latest release of the Praesideo voice evacuation system, the company has extended the functionality of the system to ensure full compliance with the standard. Bosch engineers didn't confine their work to the implementation of only those requirements that are obligatory, but also implemented a range of optional requirements that can be asked for by the customer for specific system set-ups.
"It is, however, of great importance to realise that the use of EN54-16-certified equipment in security systems is not the only driver in offering safe environments for the public. Bosch takes its commitment far further, actively supporting a worldwide network of dealers by means of training courses, knowledge bases and design tools. This support is of great importance for promoting standards like ISO 7240-19, which are set up to safeguard system design and installation of voice evacuation systems and to specify the planning, installation, commissioning and the service requirements for emergency sound systems."
One nagging thought remains, concerning standards such as this. Do they actually make people safer? Hemming reminds us of certain responsibilities. "Whether we will be safer as a result of EN54, and whether it will restrict supply to a few manufacturers willing to pay the price, doesn't matter," he states. "The standard comes into force soon and you absolutely need to know what it entails. I'm working with a few other consultants to bring out a definitive guide to the standard to assist manufacturers, consultants and installers in coming to terms with what EN54 changes and how it fits in with the existing standards."
"Without doubt there will be change - change in the kit, especially," agrees Voce, adding a note of caution: "There will be new kit less frequently, because the players and their ability to adapt will alter in a whole new approach to VA manufacture."