How to Ensure Fire-Alarm System Reliability

June 1, 2007
Get fire-alarm facts and develop a proactive and prescriptive inspection, testing, and maintenance plan to ensure operational excellence

Your building has a fire-alarm system - the local fire authorities blessed it when it was built, so now you're all set. Or are you? There are certain things that every property professional should be aware of (at least on the most basic level) to ensure that his or her building's fire-alarm system provides the protection required from initial install to replacement.

That's right - the truth is that your fire-alarm system should be replaced or upgraded periodically. Until that time, however, there are other things you can do to get the most mileage out of your system. Four recommendations follow for anyone involved with a fire-alarm system.

1. Be Knowledgeable
Be aware of some basics about your building and your community (specifically, which codes the local municipality uses with regard to fire-alarm systems). The two main code bodies in use at this time - the Intl. Code Council (ICC)[1] and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) [2] - have very similar requirements (the ICC actually references NFPA codes and standards). In addition, laws that apply to fire-alarm systems can dramatically impact what comprises a fire-alarm system. If you understand what type of building you have and how your community's codes apply, you will better understand your fire-alarm system's role in the life safety of your building. You will also be better prepared when you are approached about changing your system.

2. Be Proactive
The most important thing you can do for your building and its occupants is to perform the proper inspection, testing, and maintenance of the fire-alarm system. What type of inspection, testing, and maintenance program do you have in place? If, for some reason, you don't have one, or possibly don't know if yours is adequate, the care, maintenance, and testing of your fire-alarm system - whether you follow ICC or NFPA codes - will be governed by NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code®.

You've likely read the chapter on maintenance and testing, and there's a lot to do to simply test the system (and recommendations suggest that a system be tested all the time). In reality, visual inspections need to be performed monthly, quarterly, and semi-annually on various components, but the actual activation and testing of devices is typically done annually if your system is monitored by a central station service [3] . Your personnel can usually handle the basic visual inspection; however, it's probably best (and is often required) to hire a licensed and trained company to perform your system's annual testing.

Many owners are concerned about having proprietary systems and being locked in to a particular vendor for service and testing. While it can be difficult to find multiple vendors in your area that have the access to program your panel - a common complaint among any owners who have received marginal service over the years and feel trapped by the system they have - almost every system is proprietary in a sense (they all have their own unique software programs and passwords). As the owner of the system, you have the right and the ability to choose any provider to test your system. And, given that the fire-alarm community is a relatively small one, the odds are that the provider you choose employs someone who used to work for a company that sold your particular model of fire-alarm panel.

Next to inspection, testing, and maintenance, recordkeeping is one of the most critical proactive elements. By keeping a log at your panel, as described in NPFA 72, you will have a running history of your system's operability and care, and will be able to identify trends indicating that an upgrade or replacement is in your future.

3. Be Aware
Now you know what kind of building you have and what its fire-alarm needs are, and you have a first-rate testing and maintenance program in place. You're all set to sit back and let it just do its job, but what if its job description changes? It doesn't happen often, but changes in state and federal laws can have far-reaching effects on the make-up of a fire-alarm system. A prime example of this is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Its passage had a dramatic effect on the fire-alarm industry with respect to visual-notification appliances ("strobes") [4] . Almost overnight, newly installed fire-alarm systems changed dramatically in terms of the number of notification devices required; this applied to additions to existing fire-alarm systems as well.

Most commercial buildings have more than one tenant, and tenant turnover is a fact of life. What happens when a new tenant moves in? Typically, the space is modified to suit the new occupant's needs, usually requiring all the features of the upgraded space to meet the newest municipality codes. Knowledge of changes to the codes that affect your fire-alarm system can help you better prepare and budget for the possible cost increases associated with them.

The entity most knowledgeable about the changes in the laws and codes that will affect you is your local fire authority - the person that inspects your system. You should get to know your fire inspector, both to show your interest in your system and to have access to a fire-alarm expert; however, while you and the fire official share some common goals, there will be occasions where your interests may differ. This is why it is important that you are knowledgeable about the codes that affect you as well. Laws and codes can be confusing, even to a code official, and what is being requested of you in good faith may not actually be required.

Prime examples of such a contentious issue would be requests for a tenant improvement or a simple fire-alarm panel upgrade, triggering a requirement to have your entire system upgraded to meet the present-day codes. For example, if you have a system that was installed before 1990, there would be a significant increase in the number of visual-notification devices required. It is important to note that the two major code bodies (ICC and NFPA) do not presently have any verbiage requiring a complete upgrade to a system that is fully functional; however, there are local municipalities that have enacted laws requiring a system to be upgraded when a specific percentage of a building undergoes renovation or when a cumulative percentage of the building is renovated over time. Once again, it is important to be knowledgeable about and aware of your local requirements.

In addition, there may be circumstances in which you do not feel comfortable relying on your local code official for assistance. The situation may be a disagreement with the code official over what the code requires (as in the earlier example) or simply a matter in which the local authority cannot legally be involved (e.g. the design of a fire-alarm system or a legal case). You do not have to rely solely on the local authority to interpret the requirements for your system. Just as you would not necessarily go to court without a lawyer, there will be occasions where you will not want to enter into a change in your fire-alarm system without some professional help.

Depending on your location, you may have many local fire-alarm resources. There are, of course, fire-protection engineers who can assist in researching your local codes and represent your interests to the local fire authority, as well as provide legal design documents to submit to the local authority. But, if you simply have a question about the code, your fire-alarm service provider is required to be licensed and knowledgeable about the applicable codes.

4. Be Realistic
As mentioned earlier, you will eventually have to (and, in some cases, should want to) upgrade your fire-alarm system. Even if your system has had little or no problems over the course of its lifetime, one of two things eventually happens: 1) the system and its parts are discontinued and replacement parts become difficult to acquire, possibly resulting in an inoperable system, or 2) significant changes in the codes and your risk in not upgrading outweigh the cost of an upgrade. In addition, advancements in technology may also drive a desire to upgrade.

On average, a properly installed and maintained fire-alarm system should easily last 15 to 20 years. At the very least, you should be able to get 10 years of service out of your fire-alarm system before replacement parts ever become an issue: This is a worst-case situation where your "new" fire-alarm panel is almost immediately discontinued (a situation not necessarily within your control when you buy an existing building). The point is that, depending on how long you are going to be involved with owning, managing, or maintaining a building, you need to be cognizant of the fact that you may be faced with this scenario some day.

When a significant change in the laws or codes occurs, take steps to determine the true impact to your fire-alarm system. Does it affect you if you aren't making any change to your system? Even if you aren't required to comply with the change, are the risks associated with not complying significant enough for you to take the steps required for an upgrade sooner rather than later? If your building has periodic tenant changeover, then the cost of compliance can be done in stages (and some of that burden can possibly be shared with a new tenant); however, when public or core areas need to be addressed, a fire-protection expert can help determine the best course of action, assist in preparing design documents, and possibly even install and commission the new upgrade.

If you know about your local fire-code requirements and your system's capabilities; are proactive in system inspection, testing, and maintenance; have an open dialogue with your local fire official and fire-alarm service provider so that you can be aware of the changes in the codes that affect your system and liability; and have realistic expectations as to the longevity of your present system, you'll be able to get the maximum use out of your investment with the least amount of complications.

The Future
Fire-alarm system technology is constantly being improved. Even with a relatively young system, newer technology may improve life safety and allow integration with your existing system. Until the late 1980s, fire-alarm systems consisted of hard-wired "zones." [5] With the advent of "addressable" technology (where each initiating device is independently monitored and identified), the ability to locate fires increased dramatically. Improvements on this technology have included the ability to monitor the sensitivity or accuracy of a device and allow pinpoint maintenance for "dirty" detectors, as well as cut down on service costs by identifying the specific device or circuit that is defective or non-functioning. Today, there are initiating devices that have multiple means of detecting smoke or fire that are consolidated into a single unit. They can sense smoke, heat, carbon monoxide, and even have "fingerprints" of what the mixture of these components would be in a real fire.

A vast amount of research has also been done in the past few years with video detection of fire and smoke. This type of technology relies heavily on software algorithms and is being touted as potentially superior to existing detection because, in many cases, smoke or fire may be seen before a traditional detector can react. This type of detection is also capable of being integrated with existing closed-circuit television (CCTV) security systems - the major benefit being that you can augment your existing fire detection without disturbing your building's infrastructure. Whether this new technology can improve your building's safety or not, it is important to know that your next fire-alarm system may look nothing like your last.

Michael J. Knoras, Jr. ([email protected]) is a senior consultant in the Atlanta office of Schirmer Engineering Corp. (, a subsidiary of Aon Corp. and the first independent U.S. fire-protection engineering firm. Schirmer Engineering specializes exclusively in fire-protection engineering, code consulting, risk control, and security consulting.

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