Security Products & Technology News (SP&T)

Open Access in New Orleans with North America's Fire Chiefs

Security Products & Technology News (SP&T) April / May 1999 — The 1999 Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Conference spread some light on the issue of Open Access™ and what it means to fire safety for everyone.

By Bob Rodkin

I don't write much about the fire side of the alarm industry. Unlike the security portion of the industry, there are already many standards and codes established for the monitoring of fire alarms. Fire is the transparent piece of monitoring and is often overlooked or neglected in industry discussions and writings. I considered the opportunity to attend the Metro Fire Chiefs' Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana as a way to rectify this situation. It was unfortunate that I only spent one entire day at this event. After viewing some of the presentations, my disappointment about the short length of my stay grew. I found the speakers and topics to be extremely informative and educational. Some of the topics covered included changes and progress in technology, and fire prevention as the first line of defense in fire fighting.

My overall impression of the program, speakers and attendees was one of professionalism and dedication. This is not surprising considering that the National Fire Prevention Association and the Int'l Association of Fire Chiefs, joint organizers of the conference, set the standards criteria for attendance. Only the top fire officials from departments with at least 400 firefighters in their command are eligible to attend. The conference is not open to deputies or firefighters. The 300 or more fire officials that did attend, from as far away as Hong Kong, came to work and be educated.

Chief Cyril Hare of the Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services was personally invited by the conference organizers to be a guest speaker on the topic of Open Access. Having interviewed Chief Hare last year, and hearing his comments during the stakeholder consultations in March at Queen's Park, I was pleased to attend his presentation.

The Open Access presentation was done in conjunction with Jim Asselstine, CEO of Fire Monitoring Technologies International Inc. The audience of 150 fire officials was captivated by the precise and enlightening presentation. The main reason for the intense interest? The 90 seconds of valuable time that Open Access cuts out of the time it takes to get the trucks on their way to a fire alarm. There is a general misunderstanding existing today between fire services and alarm companies regarding this 90-second delay. This is perhaps due to an adversarial relationship created in part by the false alarm issue.

At this presentation, I discovered that fire chiefs do in fact recognize that they share half the blame for the delay. With existing methods and technology, once the alarm signal has reached the monitoring station, it takes an average of 45 seconds for the alarm to be acknowledged by an operation and the actions taken to notify the fire department. At that point, another 45 seconds is used up by the fire department dispatcher answering the call, entering the information into the CAD system and dispatching the trucks. This acknowledgment by the fire services of shared blame will go a long way toward mending the alarm industry/fire services relationship.

Upon completion of the presentation, many intelligent questions were asked by the attending fire officials. Chief Hare and Asselstine answered all questions clearly and thoroughly. As part of the audience, I heard many positive comments being made by the other attendees. Their comments made it obvious that they fully understand the undeniable benefits of Open Access, and they expressed a high level of confidence in the product.

The question and answer session couldn't help but to remind me of a question asked by MPP Frank Klees during the Industry Stakeholder Consultations in March. The question asked of Chief Hare and Asselstine at that time was: Is the implementation of Open Access in a fire department really nothing more than establishing a monopoly? Chief Hare's response was immediate and thought provoking in its simplicity. "I do have a monopoly," Hare replied. "I am the only guy in my community responsible for fighting fires."

Asselstine's response was equally clear and thought provoking.

"Open Access is not a monopoly," said Asselstine. "It is available to all UL of C Monitoring Stations. We (I) have worked hard to develop a product that is open to all companies, and is priced the same for all companies, whether large or small." He added, "There is far more education of the alarm industry required, and that's my job."

I had the chance to speak to Asselstine after his presentation in New Orleans and asked him to expand on his previous comments about the education of the alarm industry. Although he was eager to discuss the matter, I could see the fatigue in his look as he began speaking.

"It is my responsibility to educate the alarm industry about Open Access," said Asselstine. He explained that since his tour as president of FMC, no new fire departments have signed on other than those signed under the Open Access format. Asselstine went on to say that for the past 15 years, FMC has been in the business of visiting fire departments, setting up its alarm receivers, selling fire alarm monitoring and ultimately taking business away from other alarm industry companies.

"I know that FMC has been and still may be considered a predator by other alarm companies, a perception that has been difficult to change," adds Asselstine. Asselstine also concedes that his job of educating the alarm industry has also been made more difficult because of the existence of his monitoring station.

"I have a large station monitoring thousands of accounts that have competitors' intrusion systems in place, all there for the asking," Asselstine explains. "While I would like to partition the station to Open Access vendors, or close it entirely, these courses of action are not feasible without offsetting revenues from Open Access.

I also asked Asselstine about the response in the December issue of SP&T to the Open Access interview published in October. The letter received in response to the October article dealt with the methods used to get the alarm signal from the customer location to the monitoring station, the first segment of the alarm monitoring process.

"While I agree that increased speed and reliability of the alarm transmission to the monitoring station are an important part of the monitoring process, it does not address the same portion of the process as Open Access," said Asselstine. "Open Access deals with the second segment of the monitoring process, cutting down the dispatch time by 90 seconds after the signal has been received at the monitoring station."

It is apparent that Asselstine has made great strides in educating the fire services but still has his work cut out for him with educating the alarm industry. Those in the business of fighting fires understand the undeniable benefits and value of Open Access by providing early response to alarms.

Fire Chief Gary Richardson of the Ottawa Fire Department (the other major Canadian fire department to be signed on with Open Access), Chief Hare, and Asselstine are all saying the same thing although Open Access may not take off on their watch, it is the future of fire alarm response.

It was a pleasure for me to have attended this conference. It was very educational and it was inspiring to see the intensity, dedication and unity of fire officials from around the world. I have made a promise to myself that next year I will be there longer than just one day.