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Paul Pope, Group Business Development Director, GFE, explains the need to take total cost of ownership into account when purchasing fire safety systems 

When investing in a new fire detection and alarm system (FDAS), it is easy to be drawn in by cheaper alternatives. However, when comparing FDASs, it is vital to consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) as the purchase price only represents a small proportion of the entire lifecycle costs of the system. The system’s specification and costs should be presented in terms of lifecycle performance, as all the additional costs required to support and maintain the system purchased for its working life must be taken into account. 

Why competence is key

The first and most important factor that needs to be considered when determining the TCO of a FDAS is the competencies of your chosen suppliers at each stage in the design, procurement, installation and maintenance of the system. It is vital to only appoint suppliers who can demonstrate suitable evidence of their competency to deliver the service for which they are being appointed.  

The Grenfell disaster highlighted the importance of competence in the construction and fire safety sectors. The Hackitt Review into the disaster identified shortfalls in skills, knowledge and experience at every stage of the lifecycle of higher-risk residential buildings and in June 2018, an independent cross-industry Competence Steering Group (CSG) was established to implement the key recommendations of the review.  

More than 150 organisations were represented in the CSG, which had backing from the Government, the Industry Safety Steering Group and Dame Judith Hackitt. In October 2020, the CSG released its final report, Setting the Bar: A New Competence Regime for Building a Safer Future. The report provides a blueprint for improving the competencies of those working on higher-risk buildings and, more generally, driving culture change in the wider fire safety industry.  

It sets out a competence framework as ‘a set of agreed skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours required for a profession or trade in order to perform their work to predetermined standards and expectations and maintain or improve their performance over time’. A national suite of competence standards, including new sector-specific frameworks developed by 12 working groups, is also included in the report.  

Within the fire safety sector, companies and individuals need to be able to prove their appropriate competency. This can be done through national and internationally recognised industry training and qualifications so, for example, gaining the relevant proof of educational competence backed up by OFQUAL, Qualification Wales and Qualification Northern Ireland. 

The FIA (Fire Industry Association) has been at the forefront of raising the standards of professionalism and competence across the European fire safety sector since it was established in 2006. Its wide range of industry-recognised courses and training enable individual employees and their employers to demonstrate competence. Its main aims are to ‘promote, improve, and protect fire protection methods, devices, services and apparatus’ by representing its members and providing technical support, guidance and opportunities for professional advancement through education and regulation.  

By choosing trained individuals and organisations, you can be confident that they will be up to date with the latest revisions to fire protection standards.  

The Hackitt Review and subsequent report have also prompted other fire industry trade associations to set clearer requirements for their members to comply with in relation to demonstrating competence. The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP), for example, has stated that it will be ‘mandatory for member companies to demonstrate that a proportion of their employees have been suitable trained and/or have achieved appropriate qualifications in passive fire protection’. This is just one of a number of examples of the ways in which those bodies representing different areas of the fire safety sector are taking steps to drive professionalism across the sector.  

While training and qualifications help to demonstrate the competencies of individuals within an organisation, another route to ensure the competence of your chosen supplier or suppliers is to only appoint those companies that have been independently accredited by a UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service) accredited third-party certification company.  

Third party accreditation offers assurance when choosing a supplier as it independently verifies that your chosen supplier is competent to undertake the work you need and has been assessed at least once in the previous 12 months to re-evaluate their level of competency. For fire safety products, third-party product certification demonstrates that the product is fit for purpose, that it has been manufactured in line with a defined quality system and that the production process has been rigorously tested.  

By choosing a supplier with third-party certification, should a situation arise that requires an investigation, you will be able to demonstrate that you have actively taken steps to ensure the competence of your chosen supplier during your procurement process.  

At GFE, we are playing our part in this drive to improve standards by establishing the Global Fire Training Academy, which is currently in development. As well as creating new training resources, we are working with our network of international distributors to develop a partnership programme which will see in-territory training on products, installation techniques and standards offered to our customers and our customers’ customers wherever they are in the world. Our intention is for many of the courses to be CPD accredited, which we know will be welcomed by our customers.   

The impact of communication protocols and system access on TCO 

The system’s communication protocol and access to the system information are particularly important considerations when determining the TCO of a FDAS. In simple terms, the communication protocol is the language that devices use to speak with each other, and, in the case of FDASs, this usually means how the field devices such as manual call points, detectors and interfaces communicate with the fire control panel.  

Some manufacturers have a ‘closed’ or ‘managed’ systems approach whereby all of the equipment (detectors, control panels, manual call points, interfaces, etc) are compatible with each other as they use the same communication protocol. However, only the manufacturer or its appointed agents are allowed to manage the ongoing support and maintenance of their products or products manufactured on their behalf.  

In this scenario, the manufacturer/agents do not normally pass the system information and management software onto the end user or their chosen competent third parties to allow them to work on the system. This leaves end users dependent on the manufacturer/agents for spares, servicing, modification and upgrades of their systems. End users could also face expensive ‘hidden’ lifecycle costs if any work on the system is not covered and pricing structures are not agreed upfront in the initial procurement costs.  

On the flip side, there are manufacturers that have established an ‘open’ system approach where the system information, operating software, training and technical data required to design, install and maintain the system is widely available to competent companies.  

In this scenario, the end user is not tied to the initial system provider and can instead choose from a number of competent suppliers for the system installation and any future servicing, modifications or upgrades to the system. Furthermore, an ‘open’ system approach can promote competitive system support, leading to cost savings and flexibility for the end user.   

Key questions to ask 

Irrespective of whether you choose an open or a closed/managed system, there are a number of questions to ask in order to establish the TCO of the system. Examples include:  

  • What is the manufacturer’s upgrade policy?  
  • Will they maintain backwards and forwards product compatibility? 
  • What is the recommended working life of the system?  

Only when you have this additional information to hand will you be in a position to fully understand the products that make up your chosen system and the total lifecycle costs of that system.  

towards complete systems procurement 

It is clear that establishing the TCO of a FDAS is far easier and more transparent if you choose to buy the whole system from one manufacturer. But there are also other benefits associated with purchasing from a complete systems manufacturer and at GFE we are seeing a gradual shift towards complete systems procurement.  

Here are some of the reasons why: 

  • System control is guaranteed as a complete systems manufacturer develops the system from scratch in-house and can therefore support full system design and advise on how all the different parts of the system interact. If you have separate suppliers, on the other hand, you don’t know where all the individual components are coming from and how they interact  
  • Liability is through one company, whereas there is a question mark over where the liability lies if components are purchased from multiple suppliers 
  • Independent testing is undertaken for the system as a whole whereas if you have different suppliers, none of them are responsible for whole system testing  
  • A competent trained fire alarm company will be able to install, commission and maintain the system, giving you greater choice of who to appoint   
  • Spare parts will come from one source, making them easier and often quicker to order  

Whole system compatibility  

Finally, I would like to look at one last advantage of procuring a FDAS from a complete systems provider – and that is certification. Whereas if you purchase different components for the FDAS from separate suppliers you will not know if the whole system is compatible, purchasing from a complete systems provider who also has EN 54-13:2017+A1:2019 approval ensures you have independent certification of system compatibility.  

The latest EN 54-13:2017+A1:2019 standard is the most effective route to ensuring complete compatibility and connectivity of the system components. Not all fire detection and alarm systems manufacturers have the latest EN 54-13:2017+A1:2019 approval but GFE was one of the first fire detection and alarm manufacturers to have been awarded this latest approval in March 2021 by an international third-party accredited laboratory for our entry level and high-end addressable fire detection and alarm systems.   

Whereas component suppliers will only be able to achieve approval for their whole system if one manufacturer takes responsibility for the other’s products, a complete systems provider with EN 54-13:2017+A1:2019 approval has far greater control and can test and maintain compliance and certification, including developing new products and making any adjustments to existing products – all under one roof. End users and installers can have full confidence that the system has been tested under the harshest of conditions.  

Our advice to those considering investing in a new FDAS would be to spend the time upfront researching the total cost of ownership before making any purchasing decisions. The arguments for taking a whole systems approach to procurement are strong – and even stronger if you add in EN 54-13:2017+A1:2019 approval.  

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