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Surveillance Cameras and Fire Detection: Towards An Integrated Solution

by Brian Sims

Video fire/smoke detection is a safety solution based on the computer analysis of images provided by standard CCTV cameras linked to a self-contained processing system capable of recognising smoke and flame patterns within the video image. Here, Risk Xtra interviews the Fire Industry Association’s CEO Ian Moore on the subject, duly focusing on its invention, subsequent development through time and, importantly, the future of detection using surveillance cameras.

Risk Xtra: Looking back to when you first brought video smoke detection solutions to market all those years ago, what was the fire safety situation at that time? What was the initial ‘spark’ that underpinned the desire to converge security equipment with fire safety products?

Ian Moore: The mid-to-late 1990s was an era that witnessed the explosion of digital signal processing, and specifically towards image processing. There were numerous algorithms around to detect motion within the scene of view of a given CCTV camera which rapidly became a de facto offering as an intrusion ‘bolt-on’ through DVRs and/or smart cameras, etc. By today’s standards the method was quite crude, using as it did a percentage contrast change pixel by pixel. There were even a few basic detection algorithms looking at the motion patterns of smoke, but none that were much more than conceptual or laboratory-run research projects.

The only fire safety situation back then that allowed new technology to be used was the acceptance of engineered solutions for areas that could not be suitably covered by prescriptive traditional means such as smoke detectors and beam detectors, etc. For their part, designers would rarely ‘stick their neck out’ on new and uncertified products.

In the world of integrated fire and security systems, this was the first product that sat firmly in the middle, using the equipment backbone of a CCTV security system for the purposes of fire detection.

Risk Xtra: Winding the clock forward to the present day, what are the newest developments in the realm of video fire detection?

Ian Moore: Technological advances in computer processing power and memory have given us more opportunities to increase the performance and uses of pretty much the same technology. Faster processing allows us to make many more calculations with the same data, while higher frame rate analysis and the enhanced resolution of camera images gives us more accurate data.

IP networks and smart cameras (ie on-board processing) allowing decisions to be made at the camera – which is certainly different from the initial days of using video grabber boards in a PC and a DOS operating platform – boosts system design options.

There’s often more than smoke emitted from a fire (or a potential fire). Systems that implement a range of detection for pinpointing smoke, flames, visible heat (through infrared), audible and gases (through spectral analysis), etc will yield a wider range of detection as well as the potential to detect fires earlier and thus reduce false alarms.

A self-learning algorithm could assist in building up a history of what to expect at certain times of the day (in terms of lighting angles/intensity, how busy is the scene, different processes, etc). That said, how this fits into the standards landscape right now is difficult to see.

There are a number of quality companies around the world working on this technology. Some of them have been investing heavily in its development for nearly 15 years. I hope that they continue to have the vision – if you’ll excuse the pun – of what video detection can be in the future once the performance standards have been agreed and video can then be an accepted mainstream form of detection.

Risk Xtra: What are the main challenges to be faced when integrating video-based fire detection into a security, building management or alarm system?

Ian Moore: Much of it is about mindset (ie ‘fire is fire’ and ‘security is security’). Rightly, there are fears around the corruption of signals, and especially over IP networks. Although these can be secured, the reticence remains.

Another big reason is product/system approvals which, in many cases, don’t allow usage in combined systems. Even though the technology has been around for over 20 years now, it’s still considered to be in its infancy.

Risk Xtra: What are the benefits of video-based fire detection in comparison to regular fire detectors?

Ian Moore: Without wanting to give a sales pitch, there are plain facts to state. For one thing, there’s faster detection as the camera is usually looking at the source of the fire and therefore not waiting for emissions to reach a detector.

Also, you can use an existing CCTV system. As such, costs can be reduced (plus there’ll be limited or zero interruption to the site during installation).

Visual verification of alarms is another core benefit. With an ever-increasing requirement for the confirmation of an alarm signal (be that fire or security) in this day and age, that’s a key factor.

There’s a large area of coverage. It’s not an exaggeration to state that one camera can cover the same area as dozens of point detectors leading to lower equipment costs and reduced installation costs. The technology also works at all heights so stratification becomes less of an issue. In addition, the cameras can be fixed in an accessible position (for installation and maintenance) and ‘look’ into an inaccessible area. There are many examples of this.

There are complex areas where standard detection can detect as normal, but will potentially false alarm due to unwanted smoke, etc. Video fire detection can accept or ignore some areas that are problematic.

Risk Xtra: Lots of positives, then, but are there any negatives in using this technology?

Ian Moore: Let me outline a few facts on this particular point. If your cameras are dependent on light, then it’s important that the lights have back-up power systems (eg batteries) to ensure the integrity of the system is maintained at all times.

Should white smoke be in front of a white background (or, of course, black on black) then there’s not much chance of the camera defining the smoke. This may – and we have had to do this previously – lead to painting the background to give a strong contrast difference between the expected colour of the smoke and the background colour.

Another issue to bear in mind with video detection is its potential unsuitability (both technically and commercially) for small areas. It’s also an unproven technology for many. It should be borne in mind that a designer can be questioned on the option of using video smoke detection should something go wrong.

Risk Xtra: In summary, then, how do you see the future of camera-based fire detection developing?

Ian Moore: When I first started working with video smoke detection, I believed that it was the future for nearly all fire detection needs. That was certainly optimistic. I continue to believe that this solution is better than many people think and should be used more often in a number of areas. I’m also fully aware that it could be a life safety system and, therefore, it has to be robust and accurate as well as better than other options.

There are many barriers to bringing new technology into our industry. Some are justified and some not. Some of those barriers are now being broken down with the inclusion of a number of Codes of Practice, standards and approvals such as ISO/TS 7240-29:2017 and guides like those produced by the FIA. Hopefully, video detection will become a recognised addition to the range of detection methods currently available.

Ian Moore

Ian Moore

Certain applications lend themselves naturally to camera-based fire detection, with more of them slowly gaining acceptance. The balance is between early and effective detection against false alarms (which is the same for every system). Applications that are clearly suitable right now, and hard to argue against, are those in large voluminous areas such as power station turbine halls and hangars, etc.

Let me put a vision to you in terms of ‘the art of the possible’. Imagine a fisheye lens smart camera located in the centre of a room and covering every corner. Make it wireless. There’s the option of infrared when no lights are on. Use the light and wireless power in the room to top up the charge – that’s the sensor. The software can then detect smoke, heat (through distortion), change the temperature in the room by analysing an image on the wall that alters with heat (no need for a thermostat controller in the room), introduce virtual tripwires (no need for a PIR detector), facial recognition (ie confirmation of access rights), leak detection and anti-distortion on the viewed image for general surveillance, etc.

We’re a long way from this scenario being installed and realised, but all of it can be done right now. Just imagine…

Ian Moore is CEO of the Fire Industry Association

*If you would like to learn more about video fire detection, there are a number of resources available on the FIA’s website (www.fia.uk.com) under the ‘Resources’ tab

Alternatively, if this is a topic of further interest to you, the FIA’s Fire Detection and Alarm Council and associated Working Groups gather quarterly to discuss products, developments and standards. They also look into research in new and innovative technologies for the promotion and betterment of the industry

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