Is Your Fire Alarm System Performing?

April 26, 2010

Make sure your fire alarm system is heard – and obeyed – by building occupants

As a result of recent terrorist incidents, school shootings, and natural disasters, the role of a building’s fire alarm system has expanded. In addition to fire emergencies, these systems are becoming emergency communication systems that also provide information during terrorist incidents, hazardous materials incidents, and natural disasters.

Although these systems play an important role in life safety, according to the Society of Fire Protection Engineers’ online magazine, studies have shown that people often ignore a fire alarm signal because:

  • Occupants fail to recognize the signal.
  • Occupants are unaware of the proper response.
  • Nuisance alarms decrease system credibility.
  • The occupants fail to hear the signal.

To ensure that your fire alarm system is capable of performing its intended function, ask yourself …

"Is the best type of fire detection installed and placed properly?"
When properly selected and placed, fire detectors can provide early warning that a fire emergency has occurred. The proper selection and placement of automatic fire detection equipment is dependent on the expected fire signatures (heat, smoke, or radiant heat), ambient/environmental conditions, and the ability to adequately maintain the individual fire detectors. Furthermore, proper application of fire detection equipment will help avoid unwanted alarms and increase the credibility of the fire alarm system.

"Is occupant notification provided through voice communications?"
During a building emergency, occupants need information. They want to know:

  1. What the problem is.
  2. What they need to do.
  3. How they need to do it.

As opposed to generating a standard evacuation signal, voice alarm systems have speakers that provide voice messages. Because voice alarm systems can clearly state the problem and give specific instructions to the building occupants about how to evacuate, people are more likely to respond. Moreover, these systems can also instruct occupants to relocate to areas of refuge when complete building evacuation isn’t feasible.

"Can all building occupants hear and understand the evacuation signal or messages?"
When audible notification is provided by traditional audible appliances (horns or bells), it’s imperative that everyone in the building can hear the evacuation signal. Audibility is measured by taking sound pressure level measurements during system testing. Additionally, if the system transmits a voice message, sufficient audibility doesn’t guarantee intelligibility. If a voice alarm system is installed, speakers must be distributed so people can understand the voice messages.

"Does my building’s emergency plan have procedures for responding to the fire alarm system?"
Every building’s emergency plan should have provisions for emergency evacuations and exit drills. This will give the building occupants the opportunity to become familiar with the building’s fire alarm notification signal and better understand the building’s evacuation plan.

"Who can help me determine if a fire alarm system is capable of performing its intended function?"
When properly designed, installed, tested, and maintained, fire alarm systems can reliably detect fires and adequately trigger occupant response. Fire protection engineers understand the science and the latest technologies used to protect people, property, and the environment from fire. As such, a fire protection engineer can assist with evaluating an existing fire alarm system to determine if the system needs to be upgraded or replaced. A fire protection engineer can also develop maintenance and testing programs for fire protection systems.

Chris Jelenewicz is the engineering program manager for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (www.sfpe.org). He can be reached at [email protected].

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