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DATA 25/6/04 12:04 PM Page 55

Fire Protection DATA

Andy Scott
C-TEC/SigNET Voice alarm systems

1 Types of systems
A voice alarm (VA) system is a means of must not be confused with fire detection
alerting people to an emergency in a clear zones. Whereas detection zones are of
and unambiguous manner with the minimum strictly limited size, evacuation zones can
of delay. In 1997, the British Standards be any size that suits the evacuation
Institution published DD 240: Fire safety strategy. The only rule is that a detection
engineering in buildings. Guide to the zone cannot contain more than one
application of fire safety engineering loudspeaker evacuation zone. Care must
principles, which recognised the benefits of also be taken to ensure that sound from one
such systems in reducing the time it takes evacuation zone does not affect intelligibility
people to respond in an alarm situation. in adjacent evacuation zones.
Voice alarm messages were found to result
in quicker recognition times than when
sirens or bells were used, and live EN 60849: 1998: Sound systems for
announcements were found to result in emergency purposes says that failure of a
faster recognition times than recorded single amplifier or loudspeaker circuit must
announcements. not result in total loss of coverage in that
In the UK and Europe, most VA systems use zone. This means that each evacuation zone
100V loudspeaker systems connected to a must have at least two circuits fed from
central equipment rack. The rack(s) contains separate amplifiers. This is fine in large
the audio inputs, message storage, routing open spaces where a lot of amplification is
and prioritising matrix, amplification and required, such as the ‘bowl’ of a football
signal processing and the loudspeaker circuit stadium, but means that small rooms must
outputs. Most loudspeaker monitoring have two separately amplified and cabled
systems use some sort of end of line device, loudspeakers, which increases costs
although some return the loudspeaker circuit considerably.
to the rack. BS 5839: Part 8: 1998: Code of Practice for
Apart from 100V loudspeaker circuits, there the design, installation and servicing of
is very little cross-compatibility between voice alarm systems takes a different
manufacturers, and so it is normal to obtain approach. Part 1 recommends that, in the
the whole system, except perhaps the event of a short circuit, at least one alarm
loudspeakers, from one supplier. sounder should continue to sound in a
supervised location and, apart from that, a
Provided that the emergency functionality is single circuit fed from a single amplifier is
not affected, a system can be used for acceptable. However, it acknowledges that
everyday announcements, as well as for large public spaces should have greater
background or foreground music. In fact, integrity and recommends that
dual use is often a benefit because, when uncompartmented public spaces of over
the system is used regularly, problems are 4,000m2, or those designed to
quickly noticed. accommodate more than 500 members of
As a voice alarm has to be clear and the public, should have at least two
intelligible, normal announcements will also loudspeaker circuits. Provided that a short
be good quality, thus avoiding the poor circuit does not affect the other circuit, one
quality sound often experienced with amplifier may be used. But the simplest
ordinary public address systems. method is usually to use a separate
amplifier for each zone.
Loudspeaker evacuation zones
BS 5839: Part 8 also recommends that
Many applications require few loudspeaker failure of a single amplifier must not result
zones for evacuation but non-emergency in intelligibility falling below the minimum
paging (and music) requirements may need required. This can be achieved by
many zones. For instance, a multi-purpose paralleling amplifiers so that there is still
building may have seven evacuation zones enough capacity should one amplifier fail.
but 60 paging zones. Loudspeaker zones This is not practical in systems where

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several messages are broadcast in different routing emergency messages; and manual, Voice sounders
areas at the same time, and so most such as paging zone selection. Once
manufacturers use one or more ‘hot triggered, the messages must continue to Voice sounders are self-contained units
standby’ amplifiers that switch in play until reset by a separate signal. similar to normal sounders that repeatedly
automatically in the event of an amplifier Typical control outputs are cut-offs to play one or more short messages and
fault. There has been a lot of debate about silence local sound systems, and volume tones. They cannot relay live speech and
the need for this facility, since modern restoration outputs to make sure that cannot be used for non-emergency
amplifiers are reliable and the increased emergency messages are heard in areas purposes. More importantly, they are
complexity of the amplifier switching with volume controls. unlikely to achieve acceptable
system reduces reliability and adds cost. In intelligibility in difficult acoustic spaces.
fact, the most likely cause of failure is Centralised or distributed systems Annex E of BS 5839: Part 8 states that
physical damage to the external wiring, or
they may be used where voice control of
loudspeakers where a replacement Centralised rack systems are the norm in evacuation is required but the size and
amplifier will be of no benefit. most installations but in large systems a complexity of the installation does not
Inputs and outputs distributed solution may be preferred, justify a proper voice alarm system. VA
particularly where space is at a premium. systems that are called for in BS 5588:
Emergency inputs must have surveillance
Such systems may distribute the audio 1996: Fire precautions in the design,
monitoring and fault reporting and typically
signals in the analogue domain or digitally, construction and use of buildings, have a
consist of microphones (either zonal or all-
and must not fail to operate due to a single requirement for live speech and so voice
call) and automatic messages, which must be
fault. Distributed systems may have a sounders have limited utility.
solid state and altered only by an engineer.
‘master’ controller or may use ‘multiple
Non-emergency inputs can be whatever the
master’ technology, with increased system Until recently, VA systems were
application requires, including paging,
resilience. Either way, control and fault considerably more expensive than voice
advertising messages, customer information
reporting must be maintained around the sounders, but recent developments in low
announcements or background music.
system. Distributed systems can save cost, wall mounting, integrated VA
Emergency control inputs fall into two money by reducing cable requirements systems mean that this is no longer the
classes: automatic for selecting and significantly. case.

Manual controls
Processing, prioritising and signal routing
Message generation

Message riggers and reset
+ voice alarm fault

Fire alarm control & Voice alarm control &

End of line device
indicating equipment indicating equipment


Emergency microphone
Power supply unit

Figure 1: A simple voice alarm system

Paging microphone
Operational End of line device
Voice alarm control and indicating equipment
microphones and
control Indicators End of line device
Alarm zone
Emergency microphone
Emergency Manual controls outputs
End of line device
microphones and
control Processing, prioritising and signal routing
End of line device

Fire alarm control & Fire alarm Message generation Control Voice alarm and
indicating equipment interface outputs
Amplification public address zones

1 trigger per message

Power supply unit
per zone + 1 reset

Figure 2: A typical voice alarm system with four loudspeaker zones and non-emergency announcement
capability. Live speech and recorded messages can play in different zones at the same time

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2 Design and installation 4 Relevant standards

The type of building and evacuation However, a new version of the test, STI-PA,
and other documents
strategy/cause and effects will decide the has been developed and several
number and location of evacuation zones. If manufacturers plan to launch STI-PA BS 5588: Fire precautions in the design,
the system is also for non-emergency use, intelligibility meters in 2004. If these prove construction and use of buildings,
the client will consider this to be the most to be reliable, objective testing may become recommends voice alarm systems in various
important aspect of the system, so ensure economic for most systems. parts, including Part 6: Places of assembly ;
their needs are fully understood. Part 7: Atria; and Part 10: Shopping
A cut-down version of STI, called Room complexes; and Part 11: Shops, offices,
Acoustics must be considered, in particular Acoustic Speech Transmission Index industrial, storage and other similar
ambient noise level, reverberation time and (RASTI), was developed years ago. RASTI buildings
loudspeaker to listener distance. In quiet testing is sometimes called for in
non-reverberant buildings with standard BS 5839: Part 1: 2002: Fire detection and
specifications but this is inappropriate since
height ceilings, loudspeaker design is simple fire alarm systems for buildings
RASTI is only suitable for live speech.
and it is easy to work out the power in each BS 5839: Part 8: 1998: Code of practice for
zone and hence the amplification required. The particular acoustic problems
the design, installation and servicing of
encountered in stadiums mean that
The architect will be concerned about voice alarm systems
BS 7827: 1996: Code of practice for
aesthetics, especially of loudspeakers in designing, specifying, maintaining and BS 7827: 1996: Code of practice for
public areas. This may cause difficulties, operating emergency sound systems at designing, specifying, maintaining and
since (generally) a loudspeaker that cannot sports venues recommends objective operating emergency sound systems at
be seen, cannot be clearly heard. testing of the intelligibility, using either the sports venues gives recommendations for
In complex buildings it is usually necessary to STI or Phonetically Balanced (PB) word the special requirements for sound systems
be able to address live and recorded score methods, not just at installation, but for crowd control in sports grounds.
messages to each evacuation zone separately also as part of system maintenance. PB
word score uses panels of trained listeners, EN 60849: 1998: Sound systems for
but often all that is needed is an ‘all-call’ emergency purposes, covers all kinds of
emergency microphone that can be used by which means that the tests are expensive
and often impractical. sound systems for emergency purposes.
an untrained operator, such as a firefighter.
prEN 54: Part 16: Voice alarm control and
Intelligibility Installation issues
indicating equipment will shortly be
BS 5839: Part 8 says that subjective The majority of installation problems are available for public comment. This covers all
intelligibility testing is acceptable unless the with loudspeaker circuits. Obvious issues components of a system, except the cabling
specification says otherwise or there is a are careless wiring and short circuits; less and loudspeakers.
dispute, in which case intelligibility testing obvious are wrong loudspeaker tappings or
prEN 54: Part 23: Voice alarm loudspeakers,
using the Speech Transmission Index (STI) mis-connection and omitting capacitors on
is due to be published in mid-2005.
method is required. An STI of 0.5 is a systems with direct current loudspeaker
sensible minimum but may be impossible in monitoring. The Design and Installation of Voice Alarm
some acoustic spaces, such as train sheds Systems, by Doug Mason and Colin Todd, is
An impedance meter can be used to
and swimming pools, and this should be available from CMP Information, 630
measure the loading of loudspeaker circuits
reflected in the contract. Chiswick High Road, London W4 5BG.
and a pink noise generator, which
When STI was invented, computing power generates a steady hissing noise, is useful
was poor and analysis of results could take for checking that loudspeakers are working
days and be correspondingly expensive. without causing undue annoyance.

3 Inspection and maintenance

Operators must be trained in proper use Every emergency microphone should be
and interpretation of the system’s tested weekly and, over any period of not
messages and indicators. A weekly test of more than 13 weeks, all loudspeaker zones
the fire detection and alarm system should should be checked for correct operation and
be conducted to verify the interface and subjective intelligibility.
ensure that the evacuation messages are
being correctly played and can be clearly Other tests, such as battery maintenance,
heard. Playing a different ‘test’ message are required as part of the fire detection
directly from the VA system does not test and fire alarm system maintenance by
the fire alarm interface or the evacuation BS 5839: Part 1: 2002: Fire detection and
message itself. fire alarm systems for buildings.

Published by Fire Prevention & Fire Engineers Journal

Bastille Court, 2 Paris Garden, London SE1 8ND

July 2004 FEJ & FP