The Fire Alarm Guru

Two weeks ago, I powered up Yumi for the first time, marking the end of my two-year DIY project and the beginning of a new era of artificially-intelligent fire alarms. The possibilities were endless, but without the essential business skills, I was at a loss for how to get my POC to market.


Proof-of-concept! What did you think I meant?

Piece of you-know-what.

In case you didn’t know, fire alarm panels don’t swear. Don’t ask me, I didn’t make it up. Anyhow, it appears that I’ve just ushered in the Ninth Generation of fire alarms, as classified by Ashton’s Guide to Fire Alarms:

  • Black Period (190X-194X): Named for the ubiquitous black-colored vibrating bells and a lack of information surrounding this era.
  • First Generation (195X’s): Control panels were often extremely bulky due to large component sizes. Break glass stations were popular during this era. Horns were large, round, and powered by AC voltage. Bells were often single-stroke. Quadruple-four was the prevailing notification pattern.
  • Second Generation (196X’s): As fire alarm systems became more common, some smaller systems forgo control panels. 4″ square horns became the norm, and vibrating bells became more popular again. Common notification patterns were “slow march time” and continuous. Regular fire drills conducted at schools reduce deaths.
  • Third Generation (197X’s): Small control panels become more widespread, and 24 volts DC becomes the standard. Automatic heat detectors become an increasingly common supplement to manual stations. Visual appliances take off, and the Matchlock 7002 dazzles the market with its xenon strobe. Continuous and slow march time still popular.
  • Fourth Generation (198X’s): The golden age. Relay-based panels phased out in-favor of solid state for vastly increased functionality, with the first addressable systems appearing later. Smoke detectors overtake heat detectors. The last generation with strobe candela ratings in the single digits. Horns are now more compact, and march time speeds up to 90 or 120 bpm.
  • Fifth Generation (199X’s): The silver age. Higher-end panels are now fully computerized. Smoke detectors are more compact, and mechanical horns are being phased out by electronic ones. Strobes are made brighter (>15 candelas) to comply with new ADA regulations. Code 3 temporal pattern becomes the standard evacuation signal.
  • Sixth Generation (200X’s): Smaller panels “get good”. Addressability continues to advance, allowing even finer control of individual devices. One company, Synthex, even created an addressable NAC. Strobe synchronization is widely implemented.
  • Seventh Generation (201X’s): Largely a continuation of the previous generation with cosmetic improvements. The first LED strobes are introduced, and general purpose “mass notification” voice systems (MNS) replace traditional fire alarms in larger installations. DLC software and pay-as-you-go business model irritates smaller firms.
  • Eighth Generation (202X-Present): Most schools now have voice evac or MNS systems. Congress passes the IFPA Act and requires all new panels to have Omnimeter connection ports. Most of Hazard City has yet to see this technology.

Ashton’s Guide was a textbook written by none other than Mark Ashton, a wise old man known locally as “Professor Fire Alarm”.

Tough as a mule and stubborn as nails.

Ashton is a (now adjunct) professor of fire alarm sciences at my alma mater, Punxsutawney Technical College. He’s worn many hats throughout the years, including stetsons, bowler hats, and flat caps. He’s also held many fire alarm-related positions.

He was actively involved in maintaining and preserving the school’s iconic Synthex 4100μ fire alarm system (pronounced forty-one-hundred mu for those too lazy to say micro). In fact, he was the same guy who was in charge of the fire drills way back when my dad had me enrolled in Punxsutawney Pre-K.

Later in his career, he founded the American Fire Alarm Company, or “Amco” for short (that’s with one “A”, mind you).

It was a small but locally famous outfit that performed a handful of jobs per day, which wasn’t too shabby for an LLC with only one other field technician.

You really trust this "Professor Fire Alarm" with your trade secrets?

Don't worry your pretty little floating head. If there's one thing Ashton values, it's honesty. That, and money.

From what I understand, those two are often mutually exclusive.

Amco had its own research and testing facility, where Ashton would spend long nights painstakingly testing equipment and generating feedback for our vendors. If there was anyone who could give me an objective opinion about Yumi, it was Ashton.

He's your boss, isn't he?

Hey! I was saving the kicker for last. Was it really that obvious?

Affirmative. It would be nice if you told me things outright instead of leaving me to guess.

What's the fun in that? Anyway, gotta go. Bye, Yumi!

Today was one of those ride-along days. The Amco van was en-route to a service call at a Lou’s Hardware Depot location. Ashton was extremely vague about the details of the call, which was usually a bad sign. So I figured I’d try to work my invention into the conversation somehow.

So... One of my friends on the Fire Alarm Bulletin posted a-

Friends, huh? Back in my day, we used to talk to each other... in real life!

Back in my day, they said there'd be self-aware robots by now. What I was going to ask you was-

Yeah, they've been saying that for a long time. Alright, we're here.

When we pulled into the parking lot, fire trucks were leaving the scene. The outdoor strobe wasn’t flashing, so we could only assume the fire department reset the system already. They knew we hated it when they did that, and they made sure to honk their air horns at us to assert their dominance. The store remained closed to the public, and repair crews from other trades had already arrived for cleanup.

See that, Sands? Those guys don't sleep in.

It's six o'clock, and we're fifteen minutes away. Should we have been there before it happened?

Yes! I mean... No.

We were greeted by a tall gentleman, wearing a button-down shirt with a blue-and-orange vest draped over it. He introduced himself as Duncan M. Drágonez, the store manager, and explained the situation in greater detail – though pretty much any detail was greater detail at this point.

So... You won't believe this. The lifter bot went on the fritz and smashed into the sprinkler pipes. Water everywhere. Fire department said we had to call the alarm company. There's wet concrete all over the floor, so don't slip.

Now, if you’re working at Amco, and you hear the word “sprinkler”, run for the hills. Ashton fired his sprinkler guy last year, yet still insists on taking these sorts of jobs. We do what we can on the fire alarm side, and then hire an outside contractor from a long list of random Craigs and Gregs, who are always good enough to hire a couple times, but never good enough (at least in Ashton’s view) to put on the payroll. Today it was going to be Bernie and Ken Lehman of Lehman Bros. Fire Protection, but tomorrow it could be anybody.

Duncan brought us inside and showed us the fire alarm system, which was a Fire-Brite MX-9600 located inside the main entrance. Fire-Brite was owned by Beewell, who manufactures most of what we work with. I’m pretty familiar with most of their product line, and the MX-9600 was one of my favorites.

That’s a LOT of accessories!

This MX-9600 was heavily expanded, with seven NAC power supplies, two additional battery cabinets, and an addressable input module for each of the four rooftop air handling units.

So... How do we stop the beeping?

That's a great question. Sands?

Well, first we have to clear that ground fault. Water got into the conduit and probably damaged some devices. They might take a while to locate.

*EHEM* It's a simple operation, it should only take a few hours tops. I'm going to-

A few hours?!

Finding a ground fault is no simple operation. Even with today’s technology, it often takes a lot of time, especially for “soft” (incomplete) ground faults like those that result from water getting in.

While Ashton talked a bit more with Drágonez, I unlocked the panel and plugged in my Omnimeter to the data port. I scrolled through the event log and found three abnormal conditions:

  • Ground fault – AHU 1 – The first air-handling unit. Luckily, there was only one device described on this module.
  • Ground fault – FCPX 3 – This was the third NAC power supply. This one would likely be troublesome, since the NAC was conventional and multiple devices could be damaged depending on how far the water traveled.
  • Supervisory – VALVE 1 – This indicated that water pressure had been shut off at the sprinkler valve. This was necessary since the pipe was still broken.

There was map data available, which I imported to the Omnimeter. These maps include information from the event log, and are supposed to be updated whenever modifications are made. The last update was in December, so we were good.

Okay, Sands... Mr. Drágonez says we can get started. You're the spotter.

I sighed. In this case, being the “spotter” meant playing apprentice and carrying his tools while he did all the hard work. Fortunately, it looked like I was off the hook this time.

Did someone say spotter? Hey, MELISSA!!!

Right here, Duncan... Hi! You must be Mark.

That's right. Pleased to meet you. Sparky?

That's my name and occupation. How's it going?

I ended up having to explain that line to her – my name is Sparky and I’m a “sparky” (electrician). She probably had a rough day and wasn’t in the mood for jokes, because she still didn’t laugh. Ashton told me to stop talking to her unless it was work-related.

I disconnected the offending circuits from their modules so we could probe them out in the field, standing on a big paint bucket so my 5′ 6″ self could reach. The technique here is to start from the circuit’s midpoint. Once you find out which side the fault is on, divide that side in half again, ad nauseam until you find your fault.

At this point, Drágonez had left and let us “borrow” Melissa to show us around and answer any (work-related) inquiries we may have. This was perfect, since now I just had to sneak my way into a conversation with her.

We followed her into the store proper. The devices inside were exactly what you’d expect from a system at a home improvement store:

UmbrAlert V2 ceiling horn/strobes. These sound like a dying cat.
The oh-so-common GG-12 pull stations.

Melissa took us over to the site of the damage, where cleaning crews were tackling a small lake of wet concrete and scooping it into buckets. The water had soaked into the bags and the stuff was dripping everywhere. Right as I was about to put my hand print into it, Ashton pulled my arm away.

Hey, what's the big idea?

Concrete will burn your skin.

Apparently the stuff’s caustic. Ashton was more than a little disappointed that Melissa didn’t know this, and the fact that “she just works here” was no excuse. I would say he’s a stick-in-the-mud, but the mud’s probably too caustic for him, too. (That joke landed a lot better than the “name and occupation” line)

Now, if you’ve ever been to a big box store, you might’ve noticed that everything is mounted and wired on the ceiling trusses. This meant we’d be spending a lot of time working at heights, which would necessitate some special equipment.

So, Melissa... Do you guys have a scissor lift?

Sands! There's a ladder right over there.

If I'm the spotter... What about your knee, sir?

Oh, my! Please follow me.

She led us to the back end of the store and disappeared into the employees-only area. She came out driving this beast:

(Of course, she didn’t have the pantograph extended like in the illustration, or she wouldn’t be able to fit it through the door.)

Once she stopped moving, the vehicle’s “back-up” alarm fell silent and Ashton realized he was getting a phone call. It was Lehman Bros. letting him know they’d arrived to repair the sprinkler pipe. Ashton decided on a whim that Melissa would go with Bernie & Ken while *I* played spotter.

You want me all to yourself, huh?

Oh, you wish. I need you focused on work. Did you scan the panel yet?

He should know me by now. I pulled out my Omnimeter and opened up the map program. I sent a copy of the file over to Ashton’s meter and opened it up. The meter’s black-and-white display began drawing an isometric map of the store, and populated it with devices and landmarks. Our current status was:

  • ⚠ = 2
  • 👁 = 1
  • ‼️ = 0

Two faults/troubles, one supervisory, zero alarms. The map showed us exactly which circuits were affected, and their path through the building. FCPX 3 – NAC 1 passed right above our heads, and the midpoint was close by.

Ashton drove over to the fifth device and carefully extended the lift upward. He popped the discoid horn/strobe off the base and probed the terminals. He motioned over to the upstream direction, so we left the circuit open and moved to the next midpoint (Device 3).

Aha! There's our problem. Well, one of them at least.

When he went to check Device 3, some water trickled out. This was our culprit right here:

Ashton metered the circuit again and gave the thumbs-up – with the water gone, the ground fault had been cleared. He sent me back to the van to get a replacement while he put Device 5 back. This is what the flooded device was getting replaced with:

The Γ-Series, Symptom Senser’s newest line of signals.

Rarely was it ever that easy. Remember, this was a task that could take hours. On my way out, I stopped back at the panel and paged Ashton over the Omnimeter.

Hey, I'm gonna reconnect that NAC. Over.

Go ahead. Don't forget to update that map. Over.

Okay! Roger!

I got back up on the bucket and screwed the NAC wires back into the terminals. After the fault cleared on the panel, I plugged in my Omnimeter and input the new data into the map. I relabeled the horn/strobe to indicate that a Γ-Series signal would replace the ruined UmbrAlert. I came back with the new horn/strobe, as well as another duct detector just in case. I ran into Melissa along the way.

The sprinkler guys are done with me.

How'd it go?

They just checked the air pressure and stuff. They'll do the pipe when you guys are done. There's doughnuts in the break room if you guys want any.

Save me a French cruller, and it’s a deal. I told Melissa we still needed some help so that she’d agree to come along with us. When we got back to Ashton, he was already messing with the duct detector.

Duck detector?

A duct detector is a special smoke detector used to monitor the air inside ventilation ducts. The basic principle looks something like this:

(The flute-like tube on the left is the intake tube, and the shorter one the right is the outflow.)

When activated, the detector automatically shuts off the air handler to prevent the spread of smoke. Typically, these detectors are part of the HVAC system (and not the fire alarm system), but can interface with the alarm panel via a relay or module. This will show up as a “supervisory”, the same priority as a valve tamper switch.

When Ashton popped off the plastic housing, it flew open. He got a faceful of water and nearly lost his footing!

ASHTON!!! Let's take a break before we have a cleanup in aisle nine! There's doughnuts!

Fried food gives me indigestion! Now come on, it's crunch time, not munch time. You got that horn/strobe?!

Yep, and look what else.

A shiny new duct detector! Good man.

Ashton lowered the lift, now with the entire plastic beast removed from the duct. One more for the trash pile.

I consider duct detectors to be one of the great masterpieces of fire alarm engineering, and plan on installing a central air system in my home at some point just so I can run them. Still, Ashton wouldn’t let me go up there and install it myself, even though it’s literally part of my job description.

Once he was done, he stepped off the vehicle and into a puddle of water where the concrete had been, once again nearly losing his balance. Melissa nearly had a heart attack on his behalf.

Once you hit sixty-five, forget it. Don't get old, kids.

After much pleading, I was able to convince him to let me change out the horn/strobe myself, which again, was part of my job. I took the unit out of the box and set the tone select dial to temporal three broadband (the dying cat sound), and the volume dial to medium.

The weight capacity on the lift was 500 lbs, so I asked Melissa if she’d like to join me and learn herself something. But she was afraid of heights, and didn’t think she could handle it. Well, she picked the wrong place to work.

That's what the lift robots are for.

Well, that and breaking sprinkler pipes.

She wasn’t amused. Once I got up there, I unscrewed all the wires off the old base and put on the new one. Then, I slid the new horn/strobe into place and secured the mounting screw.

See? We had to find out where the water was creating a path to ground, so we basically kept probing the wires and dividing the circuit in half until we found it.

Cool, I guess. Kind of like what we do with security cam footage. Are you guys hiring?

No. Do you mind making a quick announcement, though?

Before we left, there was one more task left – we had to test the signals. Melissa hurried over to the PA microphone to announce the beginning of the audible fire alarm test. Once she was finished, she came back and asked how she did. No complaints from any of us.

That was molto bene. Now it's about to get pretty loud in here. Hit it, Sands!

Alright... Pull down!! Fire alarm, activ-

WAIT! Actually, why not be a gentleman and let her do it.

I’ve pulled the fire alarm hundreds of times throughout my career, so I was more than willing to give up my turn if it would put a smile on her face, and she was beaming at this point. What made me upset is that he didn’t even let me stay and watch the excitement unfold. Instead, he had me drag the tools back out to the van like we were in a rush to leave or something.

When the alarms finally did sound, all I was able to hear was some faint beeping, and the Matchlock motor bell at the front of the building:

These things don’t sound nearly as musical as their solenoid-driven counterparts. The fact that this one had an abandoned bird’s nest inside made it sound more like a muffled jackhammer.


Ashton walked out of the building out shortly after shutting the alarms off, and that was it. My first impression was as a helper, rather than a self-reliant, competent fire alarm inspector. No chance to say goodbye to Melissa. Nothing.

Oh, don't worry. I said goodbye to everyone.

That's not it. I was kinda starting to like her, and it would've been nice to say a proper goodbye instead of being on the sidelines the whole time.

Like her? You've known her for what, ten minutes? Come back and visit on your free time. You know, when you're not representing the company?

(blah, blah... mrmgrumble... in the stalls... mrmph glory-)

We closed up the van and took off. Hopefully he didn’t hear what I was muttering to myself. It was still only around 10 AM, and we were now heading back to the Amco lab so I could pick up my van and finish my rounds.

Hey, Sands... Have you been working on any projects lately?

Umm... I mean-

Gotcha! So that's why you've been taking so many sick days. You know what it says in your contract about side projects, right?

Huh?! What does it say?!

It doesn't say anything! I'm just joshing.

There was still some time to spare before I had to go, so we decided to take a breather and hang out in the lab. It’s a pretty cool place.

The Amco building in all its glory.

There’s swathes of fire alarm equipment mounted on display boards, a bucket of old bells known affectionately as the “gong pit”, and a huge machine which prints PCBs and was currently making one of our custom-built annunciator panels.

So... That's what I've been meaning to ask. What's your opinion on bringing artificial intelligence to the fire alarm world?

The so-called experts at Synthex beat you to it, and it's GARBAGE! About as intelligent as a nematode on an acid trip is what I say.

No, no. I meant real AI... Strong AI... The kind you see in science fiction stories written by weirdos on the internet.

At this point, Ashton realized I might be losing my mind from working too hard, and offered me a doughnut. Apparently he had pilfered the rest from the break room to save for later, rather than interrupt the workflow. I made sure not to eat near any of the equipment.

The worst way to explain something to someone is with a mouthful of doughnuts. But that didn’t stop me. I told Ashton how I had successfully created the framework for an AI control panel using only a Masala Chi computer and a killer app I programmed in Middle C.

If you're serious, and I don't think you're kidding... Then bring it here and I'll have a look for myself.

Well that'll be difficult, as she's currently mounted permanently to the wall at my house. And these are clearly Japanese rice balls.

They must've messed up the - Wait - SHE?!

I named her Yumi... And hey! Since her AI core is a Masala Chi, I guess I could just bring her here and hook her up to a monitor.

Wow, you are a weird little man... You could be the next Bill Gates, and you're wasting all that computing power on your home fire alarm system?


It was at this point that I realized that I was a ridiculous person with very little ambition outside my weird hobby. Ashton pinched the bridge of his nose, probably in shock at how unbelievably stupid and shortsighted I was.

Shortsighted? No, it's brilliant!!! You know what this means? We might be able to compete in the IFPA World Expo this summer!

The IFPA World Expo was held every year in Orlando, Florida. Elite fire alarm companies from across the globe faced off against each other to determine the best technology in categories like best smoke detector, best notification appliance, best data protocols, and most user-friendly control panel. This could be our chance to prove ourselves, so long as Ashton found the time to look at my creation.

If it's time you need, I guess that means you'll have to hire another employee. Maybe one starting with "M"?

Nice try, I'll give you that. By the way, what type of panel did you use?

A Synthex 4007ME.

Synthex?! SANDS!!!