IoT technologies for fire safety in smart buildings and cities

Smart Cities and Buildings need to also inherently be Safe Cities and Buildings. Most of our upcoming cities have high rises and dense concentration of buildings, making it even more essential to rapidly and effectively address any type of fire situation to minimize and contain any loss of life and property. 

The speed of local response and the degree of preparedness is especially important when you consider the fact that most cities have dense traffic conditions and it is unlikely that in every situation the Fire Department and its equipment reach the required locations immediately or in a timely manner. Some of the recent fire mishaps in Europe and the United States have further underlined the fact that this is not an area to be taken lightly as the consequences can be devastating. Fortunately there are emerging technologies which can be leveraged to enhance the effectiveness and speed of the fire response. It is critical that the deployment of these should be systematized and standardized, and should go hand in hand with the evolution of our cities into smart cities that are made up of highrises and urban sprawls.

Emerging technologies as enablers

The confluence of a few emerging technologies offer us new options to enable a step change in how safety can be addressed in our upcoming Smart buildings and Smart cities. To be truly considered ‘Smart’ these buildings and cities should be able to rapidly and more coherently address emergency situations, if such an event occurs. Also, they must equally focus on those elements that can help prevent the occurrence of such fire situations. Some of the key technologies that could enable such a change include 

  • Explosive growth and easy access to internet connectivity & bandwidth Internet is the vehicle for communication of data both large and small. It allows almost instant communication of information in both a ‘push’ and ‘pull mode’. Given the strides in wireless technologies like 4G, LTE and in Fiber technologies, both internet and bandwidth is economical and accessible in most places urban and rural. This is the backbone of the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies being discussed here.
  • Ubiquity of Smart Phones and Tablets along with their inbuilt notification systems Devices that can access the internet must be present ubiquitously in the hands of users to provide them with the right information at the right time. Smart phones, tablets etc have become economical and rapidly increasing in adoption making this the vehicle of choice for enabling Fire Safety. Android and iOS based notifications have added to the traditional voice, email and SMS based systems thereby providing redundancies in communication to users, which are very essential in emergencies.
  • Advancement of wireless technologies, especially for IoT enabled sensors Quick and reliable detection of the fire event occurrence is critical to enable fire safety. Sensors have always been the mechanism to do that in many western countries. The latest advances though have allowed these sensors to communicate wirelessly using RF to reach the internet and communicate events instantaneously. Long battery lives and communication of their battery status and their functional health is now feasible for these devices, which make them ever more easy to maintain and more importantly, also to be more fail-safe. 
  • Economical access to Cloud based Apps and data storage A large network of sensors and users does require correspondingly sized applications and data storage capabilities. The emergence of multiple ‘cloud’ service providers makes this an economical option that can be used for things that range from monitoring the health of sensors to serving data and notifications to first responders and other users. 
  • Adoption of Computer aided Facility Management (CAFM), Building Information Modeling (BIM) and virtual reality (VR) technologies for efficient operation and management of buildings Accurate data about buildings, such as the floor layout, building assets, fire-fighting equipment, evacuation plans and also its occupants is critical for the First Responders and Emergency Crew on the scene. CAFM, BIM and VR are some of the emerging technologies that store and serve this data for various uses that range from daily operation of facility management to emergency response situations.

An IoT based System for Fire Safety

These emerging technologies when aligned together to complement each other, can deliver the promise of enhanced Fire Safety, enabling the promise of Smart buildings and cities that are safer.

Figure 1 : IoT system architecture.
Figure 1 : IoT system architecture.

A typical architecture of such an IoT system is shown in Figure 1. At the edge of the system sit the pieces of hardware that actually detect the fire. Typically these are constituted by Fire Panel systems or sensors of some kind, usually Smoke, Gas Leak, Temperature or similar other. The next level of the system consists of hardware that communicates with the prior layer either via wired means such as shielded RS485 or CAT6 cabling or through some form of wireless RF signals. This layer typically consists of hardware called as Nodes, Hubs or Gateways. Typically these Nodes, Gateways or Hubs are pieces of hardware which have access to the Internet either through wired or wireless means. This layer communicates with the Cloud application server using IP protocol and communicates any event that is sensed by the ‘edge’ devices such as fire panels or sensors that are connected with it. The health of the system is being checked by each layer on an ongoing basis and communicated to the cloud server. This health monitoring activity is as critical as the monitoring of any fire event itself, because the usefulness of the whole setup is dependent on the system being in a ‘healthy’ state. So not only are the events themselves important, but other aspects such as battery levels of the sensor or panels, the RF connectivity between the sensors and the Gateway/Nodes and the internet availability at the Gateway/Nodes. The cloud server is the repository of all the event and health information and it also houses information pertaining to the actual real estate in which the sensors and panels are housed. Such information can consist of Floor plans, Fire Evacuation plans, Building Asset information, Fire Fighting Equipment information, Fire Audit Information, Occupant Information and where applicable even surveillance cameras. All this critical information needs to be linked to specific sensor information so that if a fire event occurs, not only are the first responders and affected occupants being made aware of the event, but also accompanying relevant and actionable information that will result in saving of life and property. 

Figure 2 : Fire monitoring and control elements in the system.
Figure 2 : Fire monitoring and control elements in the system.

In addition the Cloud Server application supports notification management, i.e. the automated and manual ability to communicate with all occupants connected with the affected property areas to guide them through the event. This communication can occur through App notifications, emails, SMS and PA systems. These communication tools can be engaged by the administrators of the application based on how the emergency situation or event evolves. 

The first responders and occupants can use Smart Apps or Browser based applications or hard kiosks to access the Cloud Server and the information that it provides. Absent any of the above, they can still access SMS messages or PA system that the application would send out thereby allowing broad coverage to ensure that almost all do receive the relevant information. 

There are a number of other aspects that this architecture can enable, besides just sensors and fire panels. Figure 2 shows some of these elements that the system can link together. These elements can relate to;

a. Verification: Cameras, Motion Sensors and other such devices can serve as useful tools for verification of fire or movement of people in specific area. The same system can be connected to allow an integrated view of all these aspects that are critical to the first responders in arranging the fire-fighting and rescue efforts

b. Status and Control of Assets: Pumps, Motors, Elevators, Ventilation Systems etc which are all building assets whose status is important to be known in the event of a fire. These can be connected to the same system to provide firefighters with an integrated view of some critical assets as it relates to the fire.

The system when deployed has the ability to serve needs at various levels – Individuals, Building Operators and Centralized Fire Safety Departments that extend across geographies. Information can either be aggregated or segregated at any level geographically for monitoring sensor information. Figure 3 shows an example of such a centralized monitoring setup that is monitoring a broad geography for occurrence of emergency events. The system can also serve as a mechanism to escalate emergency events if need be. 

Figure 4 : Platform enables a variety of actions in the event of an emergency.
Figure 4 : Platform enables a variety of actions in the event of an emergency.

One of the principal benefits of such a platform, is that can be used by organizations to efficiently and effectively address emergencies. Figure 4 shows an example of how as emergency events occur and are communicated by a sensor to the system, a menu of actions can be provided to the people who respond. This menu of actions can support the following

a. Understanding the location of the fire event in the context of floor plans or building layouts

b. Verification of the fire event, by opening up linked cameras to verify the ground conditions

c. Communication via email, notifications, SMS and PA systems to occupants of affected areas

d. Understanding the various options by looking at the fire escape plans and/or other information

These are examples only, and other such actions that facilitate rapid and effective responses can all be enabled for the firefighters and other responders. An additional and important facet addressed by such systems is to maintain relevant property, asset and occupant information along with fire inspection and audit information for the property all of which may be critically needed not only while addressing a fire situation but also to ensure that buildings are in compliance with fire regulations on an ongoing basis thereby reducing the likelihood of such fire related emergencies. An example of such data that might be available is displayed in Figure 5. 

Figure 5 : Platform stores all relevant information on Property, Assets, Fire Audits and more.
Figure 5 : Platform stores all relevant information on Property, Assets, Fire Audits and more.


An Internet of Things (IoT) enabled sensing technology with the accompanying gateways that connect to a backbone cloud based software and apps is a critical requirement for upcoming Smart cities, buildings and neighborhoods to enable fire safety. Such and IoT based system can significantly improve the speed and effectiveness of response, within any geography big or small, by providing relevant and actionable information about 

IoT System Architecture the event, the property and the occupants to the first responders and those caught in the fire event. Such a system also plays a pivotal role in ensuring compliance with fire audits and inspections so that occurrences of such emergency events themselves are hopefully minimized by escalation of non-compliance. This system therefore is fundamental in making Smart cities into safer cities.

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