IoT in fire safety
Despite understandable concerns over cyber security and resilience, technology such as IoT is playing an increasingly important role in fire safety. Chris Price reports.
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to transform all our lives. By connecting devices, or things, to the internet it is possible to monitor their performance remotely, detect when they are going wrong, or even carry out necessary adjustments without requiring human intervention.
According to Statista there were 13.8 billion IoT connected devices globally in 2021 and by 2025 that figure is set to soar to 30.9 billion units. Connected IoT devices in the consumer domain include security cameras and smart speakers, while in the business sector many commentators believe the latest industrial revolution (referred to as Industry 4.0) will depend on technologies such as IoT and AI to drive productivity and reduce costs.
Yet despite all the hype around IoT and its many benefits, rolling out the technology isn’t without risks, especially in the fire safety sector. For example, there’s the potential risk that IoT sensors monitoring fire safety equipment could develop a fault with potentially fatal consequences, or that it could be attacked by hackers in much the same way as critical national infrastructure has found itself under attack in recent years.
Says David Mudd, Global Digital Product Certification Director at the BSI (British Standards Institute): “I can see that the fire sector is understandably lagging behind some of the other industries because the first principle is that you can’t do anything to compromise performance of the system from the fire perspective.”
The FIA’s IoT Forum, alongside David Mudd from the BSI and Sarb Sembhi from the IoT Security Foundation will be presenting an exclusive session on the subject of IoT in fire safety on 18th May at this year’s FIREX International.
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Growing IoT interest
One of the challenges he sees with IoT in general is that companies are often in a ‘mad rush’ to connect devices to differentiate themselves from their competition without thinking of the possible consequences. “Every time you connect something you are increasing your attack surface,” adds David. “Companies should only use this connectivity if it really adds value which outweighs the risk that it also brings.”
The BSI has acquired four cyber security companies over the last five years which Mudd claims gives the organisation a ‘very strong technical capability’ when it comes to addressing potential security concerns within the fire safety industry. It also works directly with manufacturers which come to the BSI to assess and certify their products. However, it finds that the IoT products presented usually fail to meet the necessary standards. “Our first-time pass rate is just about zero – it may not be a major conformity, but we usually find something,” says Mudd. “If this is the tiny percentage of the manufacturers who are being proactive and coming to us, we hate to think what the rest of the market is like.”
Yet despite these understandable concerns, there remains considerable interest in IoT technology within the fire safety sector. In a 2021 Fire Industry Association (FIA) report on IoT, based on a survey carried among hundreds of European companies, all participants (100%) said that IoT will play a key role in the future of the industry. Indeed, nearly half of organisations (47%) surveyed are already working on an IoT project and just under two fifths (39%) are planning to do so in the future.
According to Adam Richardson, Operations Manager for the FIA, it is this interest from its members that prompted the organisation to take further action to explore the use of the technology within the fire safety sector. “We have always been led by our members whether it’s Grenfell, Brexit or Covid,” he says. “As a direct result of the survey, the FIA took the unprecedented step to set up an IoT forum because many people told us there isn’t an open platform for individuals to discuss, collaborate or even talk about the technology on an informal level.”
Comprising several industry organisations, including the BSI, BRE (Building Research Establishment), Euralarm and the NFCC (National Fire Chief’s Council), the forum now has 80 members. “This level of engagement is unbelievably exciting and hasn’t been seen before within an FIA forum,” claims Adam. However, it is much more than just a talking shop, he argues. The FIA’s IoT Forum has set up several task groups to tackle long term standards and regulatory issues, as well as creating best practice guidance for its members.
“Shifting to IoT isn’t without its risk, especially from a cyber security perspective. Inevitably, as two-way communication between fire safety devices and maintenance organisations increases, so does the potential risk of an attack from hackers. Furthermore, there are always going to be concerns about what happens, if for whatever reason, the technology fails and is unable to provide data.”
So what benefits can IoT offer the fire safety industry? While currently under BS 5839 Part One it’s necessary for engineers to service a fire alarm system in person – in much the same way as a car is serviced at a garage – the technology could provide data to help them with this task.
According to David, there are three different levels where IoT could work. The safest of these, from a cyber security perspective, is using one-way communication to provide information about the status of a particular device. Under this ‘level one’ implementation there isn’t any opportunity for cyberattack, but the benefits are restricted to knowing whether a device, such as a fire detector, is working OK.
Far more valuable for companies, especially from a compliance perspective, is to be able to provide a formal record of the status of a critical device at a particular time and date which David refers to as ‘level 2’ implementation. “I’ve already seen this taking off in emergency lighting, but it’s starting to happen in fire too,” he says. While ostensibly still one-way communication this does provide opportunities for much greater integration and the opportunity to upgrade to ‘level 3’ IoT.
Finally, under level 3 it’s possible for engineers to carry out over the air updates of fire equipment remotely, though this does increase the cybersecurity risk such as the possibility of a man-in-the-middle attack, claims David. For Adam, IoT also provides many opportunities for the fire safety sector. “What the technology could do, if standards permitted, is allow smart sensors to send data from the devices such as whether they are running low on batteries and which components have degraded.” He adds: “This means that, when the engineer goes to service the system, they can potentially be much more efficient.”
Indeed, some technology companies are already offering fire safety solutions which use IoT. One of these is French property technology (proptech) firm Shokly, which was acquired last year by lift maintenance company WeMaintain. For Shokly the challenges are not so much technology based but are to do largely – and understandably – with regulatory issues.
“A fire safety system is basically an independent island within the building which you want to work no matter what happens, even if there’s a power failure,” says Olivier Comets, Founder and CEO of Shokly and now Head of Fire Safety at WeMaintain. “This means that opening up the system to the rest of the world and getting data out is very complicated because a lot of people argue that it needs to be kept independent for various reasons.”
According to Olivier, Shokly/WeMaintain’s ‘secret sauce’ is being able to hook up an IoT module on virtually any existing fire panel which can be paired with an engineering app. “The IoT module can save the service engineer a lot of time as well as providing information about when an event is triggered, whether that’s a fault or a fire,” says Olivier Comets. David Martin, Head of Fire Division UK at WeMaintain, adds: “IoT technology doesn’t remove the need for an engineer, it just means that if we get a fault through the engineer knows what the problem is before going to fix it.”
Look to the future
There’s no question that the role of IoT in fire safety is growing. Interest among the FIA members is particularly high and many organisations have either already implemented IoT solutions or are about to in the coming years, according to its study.
However, shifting to IoT isn’t without its risk, especially from a cyber security perspective. Inevitably, as two-way communication between fire safety devices and maintenance organisations increases, so does the potential risk of an attack from hackers. Furthermore, there are always going to be concerns about what happens, if for whatever reason, the technology fails and is unable to provide data.
Nor is IoT the only technology solution that organisations are looking at. Post Grenfell, there has been a major emphasis on what the government refers to in its documentation as the ‘golden thread’ of compliance. According to Aston Bowles, Director of Marketing, Tio Fire Safety most companies have up until now relied on paper logbooks to keep their fire safety records updated. “The problem is these records are often stuck in a book, not updated or even sometimes lost,” he says.
Tio Fire Safety has introduced a digital fire logbook that enables all of this information to be saved digitally in the cloud which multiple users can then contribute to. It’s also looking at ways in which IoT sensors fitted in devices could eventually send that data directly from devices to the digital fire logbook. However, as Aston points out, not every fire-safety product can or should be digitised. “There’s a huge amount of passive fire protection out there,” he says. “For example, there are many more fire doors than there are fire alarm systems.”
Technology, such as IoT, has a role to play in the future of fire safety – particularly when it comes to providing compliance and making the lives of service engineers that bit easier. But, as in other walks of life, it’s certainly not the answer to everything.
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