School vacation = work for fire alarm installers

Summer ‘busiest time of year for school contractors.’
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Thursday, July 7, 2011

PLACENTIA, Calif. and OCALA, Fla.—The final bell for students before summer vacation is like a starting bell for fire alarm installers who work in schools. They often only have that time to install a new fire alarm system or retrofit an existing one before students return in the fall.

“The vast majority of your work is done during the summer,” Frank Johnson, sales engineer with R.M. Systems of Placentia, Calif., a Silent Knight fire alarm dealer most of whose customers are schools, told Security Systems News in June. “This is the busiest time of year for school contractors.”

The company of about 20 employees this summer has five projects installing fire alarm systems in the Torrance, Calif. school district.

Across the country, Mid State Fire & Systems, a Silent Knight fire alarm dealer in Ocala, Fla., is starting a retrofit this summer at a 320,000-square-foot high school in nearby Marion County. The company has already installed Silent Knight’s Farenhyt line of fire alarm systems in 15 of the county’s schools.

The work at the high school this summer involves installing an IFP-2000 addressable fire alarm panel and an SKE-450 voice evacuation system. The project also involves nine power supplies installed throughout the school, lengthy wire runs of the network’s approximately 500 initiating and notification devices, and a remote annunciator to aid network monitoring and control.

“We only have eight weeks to do the whole project,” said Monte Guerrette, senior project manager with Mid State, which has 11 employees.

Jim Orrell, operations manager, said, “There are probably 1,200 man hours in the job, so eight weeks is a fast pace.”

Mid State, which is constructing a new web site at www.midstatefire&systems.com, also this summer is installing a fire alarm system in a project in which a sports complex is being added to a high school in another nearby county in Florida.

The two companies talked to SSN about some of the challenges and benefits of having schools as customers.

Johnson said that it can be “a difficult market to work in,” at least in California, where R.M. Systems in located. He said the state mandates that schools and other public entities go with the lowest bid for the job, but the company always bids as a subcontractor, with an electrical contractor or general contractor as the prime bidder. “So we don’t have a lot of control over the final number that determines whether you get the job or not,” Johnson said.

That’s why “relationships are very important,” he said. Sometimes a contractor will use R.M. Systems’ bid even though it’s not the lowest, “because they know the job is going to go smoothly and that we know what we’re doing,” he said.

Developing good relationships with school districts is important too, because R.M. Systems does maintenance and service as well as installation. “The maintenance type issues and repairs, they’re going to go to the people they know and trust,” Johnson said.

In Florida, Orrell said that maintaining a relationship with school districts “gives us other opportunities” that generate RMR. Mid State provides parts and support for school district, handles their warranties and monitors their accounts, he said.

Because Mid State is located in central Florida, known as the lightning capital of the world, it relies on fiber optics for its jobs. “Fiber optics is a built-in surge protection. Lightning doesn’t strike glass,” Orrell said. He said Farenhyt panels are his choice because they’re “very robust” and seldom damaged by lightning.

He and Guerrette said it can be challenging working in schools that hold summer school sessions, because they must maintain an operational fire alarm system for life safety reasons while installing a new one—or pay a fire-watch person to patrol 24/7.

The economic recession has impacted business because school districts have less money to upgrade schools, even for life safety systems, both companies said.

For example, Guerrette said, the high school project in Marion County this summer “started out as a full campus upgrade, but due to financing constraints they cut back. Now we’re only doing a quarter of the campus at this time because they don’t have the money to fund the rest of the project.”