Cable TV System Detects, Reports Fires in Homes
A new technology, scarcely a halfdozen years old, is now providing lowcost, automatic fire detection and alarm transmission through the use of TV coaxial cable for thousands of homes in about a dozen communities in the United States.
Coax cable is, of course, hardly new. Hundreds of towns and cities in this country have private CATV companies that have strung or buried miles and miles of the versatile cable much like telephone or power lines. Using these cables, the companies send out TV signals—sometimes for 30 or more channels—to their subscribers, who pay a monthly fee. This is a one-way cable service. Only since the early ’70s has the technology been available to both send out and get back electronic signals via coax cable. With this two-way capability, a computer installed at the cable company’s headquarters can interrogate various monitors in each home every few seconds, asking for a status report. This makes a superb security system possible, the technique’s backers say.
Two-way security network
In The Woodlands, Texas, two of every three of this community’s 1100 residences are tied into a two-way security network. In three years of service, no protected home has sustained a fire loss of more than $10,000. Last year, the town’s total fire loss was only $40,000, several times less than a growing, active town of 4500 might expect.
“These are the kinds of statist ics that you just can’t ignore,” says Donald T. Rozak, manager of Woodlands CATV, Inc.
Fire Chief William A. Neill is one of the system’s biggest boosters.
“These cable systems are the coming thing in fire early-warning systems,” he says.
Neill has to schedule extra drills and in-service training for his 10-man paid department because of infrequent actual fire fighting experience.
Another admirer of two-way cable security systems is Harry Shaw, director of technology development for the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration. Before this country’s alarming fire statistics can be reduced, Shaw believes that a technological wedge of some kind must be jammed into the typical chain of events leading to a serious fire.
“Remote alarm systems, like these CATV systems, can have a major impact,” he says.
Earlier response possible
To learn just how much, a grant was awarded to the Applied Physics Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University two years ago to study fire-related fatalities in the Maryland-Washington, D. C., area. In more than 100 fire fatality situations, the researchers sought to determine if (1) smoke detectors, (2) remote alarm systems and (3) sprinkler systems would have made a notable difference.
“One of the things that they learned,” says Shaw, “is that a remote alarm system will get a fire engine to the scene of a fire, on average, 20 to 25 minutes before they now normally get there. When the fire companies arrive, they find a negligible fire situation.”
Recently, that was demonstrated in The Woodlands. Late in the afternoon, the alarm system’s high-speed teleprinter sounded a warning. Five seconds later, the message was completea smoke alarm at a residential address. Following procedures, the department dispatcher immediately dialed the homeowner. Getting no answer after five or six tries, she gave Neill and the department’s two 1000-gpm pumpers a go signal.
About half of the actual runs made by The Woodlands department because of cable-borne alarms involve non-emergency conditions— a closed damper on the fireplace, cooking fumes, heavy vapor concentrations from a steamy bathroom.
However, in this case a housewife had put a skillet of grease on to heat at just the moment her husband wheeled a brand new camper/van into their driveway. In her excitement, she forgot the grease, and her kitchen was now on fire.
“The first inkling these people had that anything was wrong was when our trucks rolled up in their driveway,” Neill recalls.
Inside the cabinets were in flames, but what could have been a disastrous fire for the family was quickly extinguished and kept to a few thousand dollars in damages.
More than just fires, most two-way cable security systems in use also monitor homes for burglary and have manually triggered alarms to summon police and medical emergency squads. In providing this protection, the systems offer emergency personnel some unusual capabilities.
In Albany, Calif., all 482 units of a seven-tower, high-rise condominium complex have two-way cable monitoring. If an occupant triggers a medical alarm, an on-sight security station is alerted and the fire department EMTs are summoned. At the same time, the central computer reaches into its memory and quickly provides a hard-copy report on the medical histories of persons living at that address.
“Our EMTs report to the main guard station,” says Fire Marshal Ray Gonzalves of the Albany department. “When they arrive, they are given this computer printout. This way, they can know before they get to the scene whether there is someone in this family who is a diabetic or is allergic to a certain drug or has a history of heart problems.”
Within 18 to 24 months, Neill hopes to harness this same computer skill at The Woodlands for fire fighters.
“It would be an excellent system for quickly briefing our people on what to expect at the scene,” he says. “Such things include how many people live there, if any of them are invalids, if there are toxic substances stored anywhere, if it is a multistory structure.”
More systems coming
The Woodlands was one of the first communities in the United States to install a two-way cable home-security system. This task was made easier by the fact that this is a completely new town, built under the 1970 New Cities Act. Other “new town” or condominium projects have since added—or are adding—similar systems, including developments in Harbison, S.C.; St. Charles, Md.; Coconut Creek, Fla.; Irving and San Antonio Ranch, Texas.
In the past year, large, established cities like Dayton, Ohio, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have opened their doors to two-way cable security services. Others, including Fort Wayne, Ind.; Columbus, Ohio; and Syracuse, N.Y., are expected to join the ranks shortly.
“If city officials in communities where a cable TV franchise has been awarded will check their franchise agreement, they will find in many cases that the franchisee is required to supply two-way services as soon as they become technically and economically feasible,” notes Michael R. Corboy, president of TOCOM, Inc., the Dallas-based company that has developed and installed most of the two-way equipment in use today. “The success of places like The Woodlands argues strongly that this time has come.’
Still some problems
Not all the problems have been solved, Corboy and Shaw admit. Still needed are means for reducing the number of non-emergency alarms generated by the two-way systems. The answer, nearly everyone agrees, is public education and some device to allow a resident to cancel an unnecessary alarm quickly.
Of concern, too, is the cost of these security systems to the homeowner. Most private CATV companies currently offering the service charge from $300 to $600 per house to install the sensors and monitoring equipment and have monthly services fees of about $15. NFPCA’s Shaw hopes that insurance companies and taxing authorities can be persuaded to offer rebates to homeowners buying this service, since fire losses and protection costs are almost sure to drop.
“The more of these systems that are out there,” says Shaw, “the less time that a fire fighter will have to spend on the job. That means he has more time for home inspection and fire prevention. And this, too, means there have to be less fires. It’s kind of a cycle, if we can only grab this thing somewhere and get the ball rolling