ffe interview

“Fire systems are in place longer than regulations might require”: FFE MD Oliver Burstall

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Adam Bannister is a contributor to IFSEC Global, having been in the role of Editor from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam also had stints as a journalist at cybersecurity publication, The Daily Swig, and as Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
October 25, 2018


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FFE are specialists in fire detection, in particular beam and flame detectors, plus fire extinguishers designed for the aviation sector.

IFSEC Global caught up with the Hitchin-based company’s managing director, Oliver Burstall, to find out about FFE’s direction of travel and that of the wider industry. A wide-ranging conversation touched on FFE’s latest products, how longevity is perhaps neglected in fire systems, the (necessary) constraints imposed by a highly regulated environment and the uncertainty around Brexit.

IFSEC Global: Hi, Oliver. Can you give me a brief overview of FFE and where it sits in the market?

Oliver Burstall: FFE is owned by Halma, a FTSE100, £1bn-turnover company that operates across two major sectors: infrastructure and process safety; and medical, environmental and analytics.

Within the safety sector is the fire and security division. FFE is one of the fire and security companies within Halma. We have sister companies – Apollo, Advanced, Argus – operating within the same division.

FFE is specifically about saving lives by deploying specialist fire detection in niche areas for specialist applications, as opposed to what you’d have in your office space like point detectors in the ceiling. We’re dealing with big open areas like warehouses, hotel atriums, airports…

We do smoke detection with beam detectors and, for areas where flames are the main problem – like recycling plants, oil and gas, chemical sites – flame detectors.

IG: What do you prioritise when it comes to product development?

OB: Our technology has to be sensitive to cost points, but also really useful from an end user standpoint. We want to minimise or eliminate false alarms as people become trained to ignore them.

We want to make sure all alarms are useful and reliable alarms – no false positives, just events that people respond to.

IG: The false alarm problem remains fiendishly difficult to solve…

OB: False alarms are always going to be the biggest cause of complaints – whether it’s a car alarm, your home burglar alarm or fire alarm – for two reasons. First of all, it annoys people. Second, it teaches people not to respond to alarms, because the last time it went off there was no problem.

IG: The boy who cried wolf problem…

OB: Sadly, most people when they hear a fire alarm, the first thing they do is sit and wait – is that a test, a false alarm?

What we really want is every time there is an alarm, they know it’s a real alarm and want to get out.

“Even if only 0.0001% are false alarms, for us that’s too many”

So even if only 0.0001% are false alarms, for us that’s too many.

IG: Can you tell us a bit about your latest products?

OB: We recently launched a beam detector range that is easier and quicker to install and maintain. So the system self-aligns, figures out its own orientation and does that within 60 seconds.

And the installer can be much more confident this is being done correctly.

A lot of buildings nowadays are designed to be demolished; not to stand for hundreds of years, but for a few tens of years. So they’re not as stable as St Pauls Cathedral, something with massive, firm foundations as opposed to relatively low stiffness steel structures that move over time.

So if you’ve carefully aligned a system to sense over a hundred metres of distance, and the building moves over time, you have the risk of that it will go out of alignment.

Our new products realign automatically during their lifetime. We’re trying to bring innovation to market that meets everybody’s needs throughout the product lifecycle.

FFE is about saving people’s lives. We try and make these systems as reliable as possible, and that’s where the new beam detectors come in. It’s making sure the system can be sat in the field for 15-20 years and you can rely on its operation on an ongoing basis.  The reality is that systems remain in place for longer than regulatory requirements might specify, and we need to be cognisant of that.

We’re looking at improving longevity across all our product lines.

FFE had a full-sized replica of the Bloodhound car on its booth at FIREX 2016. Bloodhound uses FFE’s Talentum UV/Dual IR flame detectors

From a flame standpoint, we’re looking at moving into some really interesting areas where there are limitations on older, well established technology. So how do we implement those technologies to include new algorithms within software, new sensor devices so we get better rejection of false alarms and much better sensing of real flames?

And everyone has a phone – how do we help these devices interact with fire systems so they’re part of the safety of the entire complex?

The phone may be able to tell you there’s an alarm or it may even be part of the sensing system that inputs to the system. These are awesome opportunities in the future of fire detection.

But it may fall outside the regulatory environment. It may be something that can’t be an ‘official’ system, but nevertheless helps users.

IG: Does the necessarily slow pace of regulatory change stifle innovation like this?

OB: Yes – for very good reason. There’s no way I would want to be subject to a system that doesn’t have regulatory approval.

Regulatory approval does a fantastic job. What it doesn’t allow is utterly new approaches being introduced in an arbitrary fashion.

If the taxi world was massively regulated, Uber could never have come in with an inventive product. But there’s been a massive uptake from us, the end users. It hasn’t got rid of the original system, but it shows there are other ways of operating within this environment.

So what happens if you and I have another means of interacting with that fire system? It doesn’t have to go through a regulatory channel because the fire system sits there very comfortably anyway, but helps us interact better with the alarm, the observation of that system.

IG: If it’s popular enough and works well enough, might it force regulators to look at it?

OB: Eventually. Regulation – for good reason – doesn’t move quickly. We understand that.

“We want the environment we operate in to be a little more disruptive in the way it accepts new technology”

We don’t necessarily want it to move more quickly. We do want the environment we operate in to be a little more disruptive in the way it accepts new technology.

IG: Can you think of an example of a product or process that has stepped outside regulatory constraints like that?

OB: One way it gets interesting is fire systems starting to interact with smart building management systems.

So smart systems are starting to understand a lot more about the environment: light levels, heat levels, gas composition of the atmosphere… If you start adding fire systems to that you add the safety side into the equation.

They can do that without being connected to the building management system, with a cloud-level API transferring useful data across.

Data becomes particularly useful when you can make a decision based on it. If I know one part of a building is full of smoke, I can evacuate people through a particular exit to avoid putting them in danger. That has to be part of a bigger system.

We’re just starting to see some of those thought processes in the latest products. They’re in very small, niche areas at the moment.

IG: Might cybersecurity fears be constraining such integrations?

OB: Absolutely. That’s why it’s useful that it’s now relatively straightforward to connect devices to the cloud.

You can have the secure layer completely separated from the physical systems. You’re sharing data between systems at a cloud level as opposed to having physical infrastructure connected.

So you can deal with the concerns you’ve voiced without having to change systems on the ground. All you do is give them a different means of interfacing.

And that interaction is just one way. It can be just spitting data out rather than accepting any control – therefore it maintains system integrity. That is just some of the stuff FFE is working on.

IG: What impact is Brexit having or likely to have on the industry?

OB: Brexit is a concern and chiefly because of uncertainty. The regulations aren’t going to change, but many regulatory bodies that create regulatory certificates are based in the UK – so those bodies will not be part of the EU as of March 2019.

Suddenly they no longer have a registered European approval mechanism – what happens to our certification? Do we have to get recertified through other bodies? Do they certify differently?

We don’t know yet. There’s a big uncertainty for all UK-based companies.

IG: Anything else to add about the company or market?

OB: We’re looking to increase the number of regulatory certifications for all our product lines. That’s primarily for markets that otherwise would not be able to use our devices, because of compliance and specification issues.

A good example of that is flame detectors, which now have FM approvals, one of the US approvals. This enables us to go deeper into the oil and gas sector, for example.

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