Fire jobs ‘starting to come back’ for Northwest company

Improving economy and mass notification projects are helping to rebuild life safety business after recession
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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

LYNNWOOD, Wash.—Fire and life safety previously made up about half of ABSCO Alarms’ business prior to the recession, when that percentage waned to about half that and the company turned its focus on growing the video surveillance and access control part of the business instead.

Now, however, the fire and life safety portion of ABSCO’s business is on the uptick, thanks to an improving economy and a growing number of mass notification jobs, said Erick Slabaugh, CEO of the 36-year-old company, which has about 25 employees and is based here.

“I think fire is really starting to come back. We bid more fire projects in the last 90 days than we probably did in the previous two years,” Slabaugh told Security Systems News. “Fire used to be 50 percent of our business and I think it has the potential to be again. We’re UL-certified for fire and we’ve got two NICET IV’s on staff.”

He added that “a fair percentage of the work that’s been going on lately has been mass notification, things of that nature.”

One project that the Gamewell-FCI distributor has under way is a $650,000, three-year, “defend in place” project at an assisted living/nursing home facility. “We’re in the process of migrating the fire system to mass notification,” Slabaugh said.

He said that the building is a “very large horizontal facility that traditionally wouldn’t have voice evacuation because it’s only three stories high.”

However, he said, because the population is not very mobile, “the fire department has agreed that it’s better that people not evacuate the building unless they’re in a zone of the building that’s actually in trouble.” But, Slabaugh said, “the caveat to that is we’ve got to put in voice evac throughout the facility and we’ve got to create the zones as if it were a high-rise building.”

Also, he said, “there are additional requirements the fire department placed on the building owner and us.” For example, he said, “we’re putting in full-blown access control to the residents’ doors so that we can lock and unlock all those doors remotely based on fire commands.”

In addition, he said, “we’ve got multiple nodes and we’ve actually got to have two separate command centers on either side of the building, so whichever side of the building is impacted, the fire department can take command from the other location.”

The design phase of the project has been completed and is awaiting fire department approval, and some equipment has been ordered, Slabaugh said.

ABSCO also does Department of Defense work, with mass notification systems for the Army and voice evacuation for the Navy.

Another predominant life safety vertical for the company is higher education, but Slabaugh said colleges and universities in the Northwest were impacted by the recession. “The endowments took such a substantial hit that their 50-year building plans all got put on hold,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of substantial work there the way there was pre-2008 in the private higher education arena.”

Apartment complex and multi-unit facilities also “got really quiet for the last three or four years,” he said. However, he said, “we’re starting to see a fair percentage of that work come back.”

Another reason ABSCO didn’t get as many fire projects during the recession is that it refused to compromise quality when many projects were being underbid, Slabaugh said. “There was a two-year period where if a project was of any significant size, the numbers were going at or below cost, and by a fair amount below cost,” he said.

He said a building's developers often go for the cheapest fire option, which is why ABSCO would rather work with those who will actually be using the structure. “When we deal with the people who have to live with the consequences, they actually want a quality product, and it makes all the difference in the world,” he said.