It used to be that when danger was at hand someone would ring a bell and use a bullhorn to direct evacuation. The early attempts at automation often seemed to create problems rather than solve them. Sometimes, at a critical point, the technical devices simply didn't work. Or they overreacted and caused false alarms. Technologies designed to respond to different conditions competed with one another, which meant that the school, in choosing one over the other, necessarily chose only partial protection. Fortunately, manufacturers have done their homework, and are now presenting comprehensive safety solutions.

Steve Hein, vice president/marketing, EST, located in Sarasota, Fla., speaks of some of the current trends in the industry, as well as what's on the horizon. Hein explains that during the past five years, not only have smoke detectors greatly improved, but the two main types now have been combined in a single unit. There are two basic types of smoke detector. The first is a photoelectric type which spots slow smoldering fires. But the other, an ionization smoke detector, is very good at registering fast-flaming fires, such as from alcohol or gasoline.

"These two types have been around for about thirty years, but were competing technologies," Hein says. "Manufacturers of the different types would try to change agency requirements so their model was favored." Now, however, the arrival of advanced microprocessor technology not only improves the accuracy of each of these different types, but also allows them to be combined within a single device.

Moreover, the microprocessor has moved from a control panel to a panel that is, in itself, a smoke detection device. This "intelligent" panel, through its series of automated tests, determines the location of the fire and distinguishes whether it is the smoldering or quick-blazing type. "Schools are no longer in the position of trying to predetermine what type of fire they might expect," Hein says.

Moreover, the automated test procedures of the panel determines whether there is a real danger or not, thus avoiding false alarms. For instance, if there appears to be a sudden burst in temperature, the device will focus on it, but if it lasts just two or three seconds, it will ignore it.

What's especially impressive about the new technology, Hein says, is how all of the communication modes are interconnected. For instance, a fire in the cafeteria both sounds an alarm and brings up a picture on the screen, not only in the principal's or maintenance supervisor's office, but also the individual classrooms. Each classroom monitor shows in detail an individual evacuation path and other pertinent information. The intercom can also be automatically programmed into the system. If, because of the fire, the intercom no longer works, the screens will register that too.

The alarm also automatically sends screen pictures showing location, to both the fire department and the central administrative office. At this point, Hein explains, when the fire department arrives, someone at the school introduces the key fireman to the system. He may want to instruct those on an upper floor to stay there (instead of running down into the flames) until the fire is put out.

Behind the scenes, Hein says, various industry committees are discussing having a universal interface — as opposed to the manufacturer proprietary ones now in use — so that the fire department can easily hook up to any such panel. Next on the horizon are wireless devices so that the fire personnel can connect with the internal panel without needing to go into the building.

The Knox Company, in Irvine, Calif., offers two low-tech aids to safety — one that has been around for a while and the second that is fairly new.

Tom Bonetto, national sales manager for the company explains that Knox makes a lock box that goes on the front door of the school, with the key in the hands of the fire department. This, says Bonetto, "allows the fire department to gain access quickly without damaging property. It can get in quickly and secure the property without breaking down doors and breaking windows, which in turn would leave openings for vandalism and theft once the fire department leaves."

This device has been offered by Knox for about thirty years, and has been installed in some 7,000 schools. "A lot of schools still don't have it," Bonetto acknowledges,“but schools are one of our fastest growing markets. The way I explain it is that the fire department doesn't want to knock down your doors, but if there's a fire it does want to get in. This is a win win option. You get the fire department into the school immediately, while protecting the school from unnecessary property damage."

A more recent innovation, Bonetto says, has to do with putting a cap on the access to sprinkler systems, allowing only the fire department to gain access. What the fire department has in this case is a universal wrench. Knox has been offering this service for about three years. "There are 184 fire departments that have it, and it is catching on fast," says Bonetto.

Safety glass is a purely passive protection, but there are some interesting developments going on in this arena. Cheryl Wilson, marketing manager of Safti Fire Rated Glass, in San Francisco, reports that there are two basic types. One is the traditional wired glass. This has proved to be an effective barrier against fire. However, it was once thought to be safe as well but, many years ago, that was proved wrong. Though the glass might crack under stress and the wire hold the opening in place, the wire would also act as a trap, preventing escape. About 30 years ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission still approved wire glass, but upon the condition that it be made safer. For various reasons this exemption stayed in place, without any real requirements that the wire glass be made any safer. That changed in May of 2004, when the International Code Council ruled a major code change. "Now, the previous wire glass is no longer acceptable," Wilson says. "But there is a new film coated wire glass that is."

Yet, on the other hand, Wilson says, "The main industry trend has been toward better and better glass, strong enough to stop bullets or serve as a barrier to hurricane and fire. It's even used as an acoustical barrier." There are many other advantages Wilson continues. Schools can work with clear glass instead of conventional walls, to bring daylight in to enhance performance, as well as cut down on electrical lighting. A lot of decorative work can be done on it. It can be sandblasted, etched, frosted, curved and can have reflective coating, solar treatments or be treated for shade control.

Neither this advanced glass nor film-coated wire glass is necessarily better than the other. Basically, the more features you have, or the better protection, the more you pay. "The main message," Wilson says, "is that at every performance level, there are many options."