The terms fire alarm and smoke detector are often used interchangeably, even though they mean different things. This misuse creates confusion when planning your fire response protocols and potentially places people at risk. We are going to break down each system and explain when each should be used.

What is a Smoke Detector?

A smoke detector does what it says on the tin: it detects the presence of smoke. They use a sensor to detect large amounts of smoke. There are also a couple of other types of detectors used in particular scenarios:

  • Carbon Monoxide Detector – The devices known as smoke detectors pick up the presence of gases like carbon monoxide. They can be called carbon monoxide or gas detectors.
  • Heat Detector –A heat detector monitors the temperature of a room and alters people when this temperature reaches a set value. They are used in areas prone to smoke or steam, such as a kitchen or bathroom, to prevent false alarms.

What is a Fire Alarm?

A fire alarm is a system which detects and acts against the presence of fire in a building. They detect large amounts of smoke and then sound an alarm system as a response to the detection of a fire. The alarm will alert you and possibly the fire brigade so you can leave the building to safety and they can extinguish the fire.

Some fire alarm systems include sprinklers installed in the ceilings of your building to spray water to put out a fire. You might also have warning lights for those with hearing issues, access controls, a lit evacuation route, sound systems and other alert or protective protocols which can be activated in the event of a fire. They can often transmit a call for help if the resident of a building is impaired and needs assistance to evacuate during an emergency.

The Difference Between the Two

When it comes to the difference between fire alarms and smoke detectors, it’s simple: a smoke detector senses the presence of smoke in an area, and a fire alarm is a system to respond to a potential fire.

Smoke detectors are a crucial element of an effective fire alarm system as they identify the presence of a fire within a building. The fire alarm system uses this information to trigger its response to this danger. 

The Different Types of Fire Detection 

Knowing the options available helps you decide which system to install and how to maintain it. Detectors can either be analogue or digital and vary in the types of information they can provide. There are three types:

  • Traditional – these detectors primarily pick up the presence of smoke but also fire and heat.
  • Adjustable – Adjustable systems work similarly to traditional alternatives but are more accurate and can pinpoint the location of the detected fire.
  • Smart – Smart detectors offer statistics about the alert. They tell you how much smoke there is and provide temperature readings to inform the reaction required to handle the fire. 

Detectors can be powered in a couple of ways. Firstly, they can be hard-wired to the main power of a building or they can use batteries. Hard-wired alarms can be susceptible to a power cut but batteries have to be changed when they run low. An alarm should alert you when these need replacing to prevent missed detections. Alarms with ‘sealed for life’ batteries are recommended over alarms which allow you to replace batteries. Lithium batteries are a better choice than alkaline as they have a longer life and don’t need replacing as often. 

Which Alarm Should You Choose?

Which should you install? When it comes to fire alarms vs smoke detectors, the size of your building will dictate the type of alarm you should use. A small home needs at least one smoke and carbon monoxide detector on each storey and a heat detector in the kitchen. However, large buildings may need a fire alarm system to combat their increased size. 

Having a fire alarm system controlling alerts across an entire building means that, if there are fires on a particular floor or wing of the building, the centralised alarm system will alert everyone in the building. This full-scale alert will lower the risk of injuries or fatalities. Businesses have legal requirements to install a fire alarm system.

UK Legal Requirements For Fire Detection

In the UK, if you own a property, you are obligated to ensure your building meets the government’s requirements for fire safety.

Responsible people, such as a landlord, employer, owner or occupier, must conduct and regularly review a fire risk assessment of the building. This assessment considers present risks, those likely to be affected by them, the likelihood of their occurrence, the potential damage and the steps integrated to mitigate them. Responsible people need to install and maintain fire safety measures and plan for emergencies. Finally, they must inform staff or residents of these risks and train them to respond appropriately. 

Fire alarm systems in non-domestic buildings and communal areas of domestic settings must meet British Standards BS 5839-6 which is relevant to buildings under construction and existing premises. The standard states that all detectors must pick up at least one of the following: combustion gas, heat, infrared radiation or smoke. It recommends the most suitable detection systems for different environments and states that all components must conform to British Standards or Harmonised European Standards. 

The standard also dictates that all inspections and repairs must be conducted by a competent person who has the appropriate education and training. Weekly maintenance like operation testing is recommended in addition to monthly and biannual testing. In addition, the standard draws attention to the speed of detection and response, minimising false alarms and the nature of present hazards to be considered in your risk assessment.

Once each condition of BS 5939-6 has been met, certification of design, installation and commissioning are granted. If you are installing a fire detection system into a domestic building, it’s a good idea to check this regulation as it provides useful parameters to guide your fire safety.

Our Specialist Fire Protection Services

Navigating fire protection and alarm systems is vital for proper fire safety. You must meet the UK’s legal requirements and prepare your buildings for an emergency.

At Cardinal Fire, we provide fire protection solutions in construction, retail, office spaces and many other industries. We can complete fire risk assessments and equipment servicing, as well as provide safety training and a host of other services to meet your needs. If you are interested in professional fire protection, please contact us so we can provide you with our expertise.