What Are the Different Types of Fire Alarm Systems?

T. L. Childree

The two basic types of fire alarm systems in use today are known as manual and automatic. Both manual and automatic fire alarm systems can be designed to either protect lives only or protect lives and property. Automatic fire alarm systems may operate in either a conventional or addressable configuration.

Fire alarm systems may be used to activate sprinkler systems.
Fire alarm systems may be used to activate sprinkler systems.

A manual fire alarm relies on an occupant of a building to discover a fire and hand activate the alarm. Devices known as call points are typically installed near doors and stairwells to activate the alarm system. This type of fire alarm is generally used in commercial or industrial buildings where no one will be sleeping. Automatic fire alarms utilize a network of sensing devices to detect the presence of fire and sound an alarm. In addition to sounding an alarm, both manual and automatic alarm systems can be used to activate sprinkler systems and notify the fire department.

Every home should be equipped with a functioning smoke alarm.
Every home should be equipped with a functioning smoke alarm.

Certain types of fire alarms are designed primarily to protect the lives of the occupants of a home or building. This type of fire alarm will sound an alarm when a fire is detected but may not activate sprinkler systems or notify the fire department. The more complex versions of this type of system will also shut down the ventilation system to prevent smoke and toxic fumes from spreading to other parts of the building. Other types of alarm systems will not only alert the occupants, but also notify firefighters and activate sprinkler systems to help contain the blaze and minimize damage to the structure.

Fire alarm systems should be tested and maintained regularly.
Fire alarm systems should be tested and maintained regularly.

Automatic fire alarm systems typically utilize an array of detection sensors that are wire to a central control panel. The wiring configuration for these automatic fire alarms is considered to be either conventional or addressable. In a conventional configuration, a building is divided into two or more zones. Each zone has a number of different sensing devices connected to the control panel by an electrical cable. The cable extends from the control panel to the last sensing device in each zone. In a conventional fire alarm configuration, an individual sensor will activate alarms and sprinklers for the entire zone.

Unlike conventional configurations, addressable fire alarm systems employ an electrical cable that begins at the control panel and continues to each sensor until a complete circuit is made back to the panel. In this configuration, each individual sensing device is assigned an address. When an individual sensor is activated, the control panel activates alarms and sprinklers for that area only based on the sensor’s address. This type of alarm system configuration eliminates the necessity for an entire zone to be activated and enables firefighters to pinpoint the exact location of a fire.

Complex fire alarm systems may have a ventilation system to prevent smoke from spreading.
Complex fire alarm systems may have a ventilation system to prevent smoke from spreading.

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Discussion Comments


You can also get fire alarm and security systems that offer protection against fire and protection against intruders in your home. Some companies offer voice communication with live technicians who can call the appropriate emergency agencies when an alarm is sounded.


The smoke detectors that you can buy at the local hardware store work well for home fire alarm systems because they are both automatic and manual.

If you are sleeping, the detectors can sense smoke and set off a warning signal to wake you and hopefully give you enough time to get out of the house safely.

Also, if you are in one area of the house and want to warn someone in another part of the house then you can push a button on the detector and sound the alarm.

I went to junior high at a very old school. The main building was three stories. The alarm system for fires was made up of manual alarms scattered in numerous places throughout the halls of the buildings.

To set off an alarm you needed to break a small piece of glass and then push down a lever. It was really simple, and made even more so because the glass was missing in half the alarm boxes. Maybe this was common in schools with the old alarms.

For a while, there was a false alarm almost weekly and sometimes more regularly than that. As kids, we liked the interruptions. We got a chance to get out of class for 30 minutes to an hour and it gave us a break from the average school day.

The administration eventually tired of all the false alarms and put locks on some of the alarm boxes and kept a close eye on the others. I imagine modern schools have the automatic fire alarm systems to eliminate kids setting off the alarms.

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