By paying close attention to the criteria for fire protection, retail building owners and facilities managers can feel quite comfortable that their choices will translate to a level of fire detection that will effectively protect their employees, their patrons, and their products. What are the basic guidelines? The “real” starting line in the fire protection race is at the point of construction or modernization.It is difficult to surpass the advantages of a distributed network fire alarm system. Distributed network fire alarm systems offer a high level of reliability due to their survivability – that is, the ability of a system to continue to function, providing early detection and appropriate notification, even when portions of the system are damaged by fire.A distributed system is literally “distributed” throughout the retail building so that the area currently engulfed in fire will be the only area to lose fire alarm system protection. Each distributed piece of the fire alarm system should be located within or adjacent to the area it is protecting. If the emergency damages that portion of the fire alarm system, the remainder of the building can continue to operate and continue to inform people of the optimal routes for evacuation.A valuable feature on some distributed systems is the capacity to be programmed using decision-making logic that would adjust the evacuation routes and the instructions to the occupants of the affected areas according to where the fire is located. For example, if there were a fire near the north stairwell exit of a 3-story retail space and smoke was filling this stairwell from the third floor up, all the occupants in the floors above that area would be instructed to evacuate using the south stairwell. Simultaneously, the system would tell everyone below the affected area to evacuate using the north stairwell: This reduces congestion. Moreover, priority is given to the people above the fire and allows them to use one stairwell by themselves.A retail environment, such as a mall, provides a perfect application for a distributed network alarm system since each store can be set up as a region within the network. This would establish each region as its own private alarm system. While each alarm would network to the other stores, the system can notify the fire department and send them directly to a specific store.Certainly, there are many fire alarm systems that exhibit varying degrees of effectiveness. However, distributed network fire alarm systems provide specific advantages that are well-suited to the unique nature of the retail environment. Combined with careful adherence to local fire codes and building statutes, virtually any retail operation can create a fire detection and protection system worth its weight in gold.Based in Westwood, MA, Richard Aldrich is a project engineer at Fire Control Instruments Inc. (www.firecontrolinstruments.com), part of Honeywell’s Fire Group, which is a performance and technology leader in the life safety systems industry.