As electrical contractors grow, they usually specialize in a niche that involves installing electrical systems in a certain type of occupancy—residential homes; large, newly constructed industrial plants; or small, commercial retrofit projects. These niches create a certain comfort factor for the contractor. What that really means is once the EC has developed a comfort factor with certain types of electrical installations, it tends to bid and do more of the same type of work. With this comfort factor comes a developing proficiency for the particular installation, which leads to greater efficiencies and, hopefully, higher profits.
When we decide to venture into a different area of expertise, it is important to remember that although the wiring of systems is essentially the same, we may not be as proficient in performing this work simply because of the particular nuances of that new vertical market.
Fire alarm systems are no different. For example, if your comfort factor work revolves around fire alarm system installations in new construction, you may not be proficient at retrofitting a fire alarm system in an historical property.
Most electrical contractors know there normally are three codes that affect their everyday work in new buildings: the applicable building code, the National Electrical Code and the National Fire Alarm Code.
What they may not be aware of is when they bid on a cultural property, museum or place of worship, there is an additional code that must be consulted: National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 909-2005, Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties—Museums, Libraries and Places of Worship.
NFPA 909-2005 covers “ongoing operations and rehabilitation and acknowledges the need to preserve culturally significant and character-defining building features and sensitive, often irreplaceable, collections and to provide continuity of operations.” In addition, it states, “Because of the special nature of cultural resource properties, this code shall supplement existing codes and standards to apply specifically to buildings or portions of buildings devoted to such use.”
As you might imagine, there are more fire safety issues beyond life safety that are of interest in a property such as a museum. Collection preservation is one. The code requires fire safety and protection features be designed, implemented and maintained to preserve the original qualities of the collection in a historical building. Building preservation and continuity of operations also are high on the list of the historical organization’s fire safety goals.
If you have developed a comfort factor with retrofit systems in buildings and can demonstrate knowledge and experience in working with cultural properties, you have a good chance of achieving success in bidding these types of projects. The key success ingredient in the historical building fire system retrofit market is to care about the work you do and understand the preservation goals of the historic organization.
Communicate for common good
When you are a successful bidder on a historical building system retrofit, it is important that you and your installation team meet with representatives who operate the property to ensure you understand the nature of the project and special building features or collections that require protection as well as other curatorial concerns. This meeting also provides an opportunity to ask questions or review alternative approaches that may be necessary once the nature of the building is fully disclosed. Your team should be thoroughly briefed on the significance and importance of the structure, spaces, character-defining features and collections prior to beginning work. This initial meeting also can cover the project fire safety program, including special protection for existing facilities and contents, emergency precautions, notification of both emergency services and curatorial staff and security issues.
NFPA 909-2005 actually requires more protection than may be mandated by the building code in force in your jurisdiction. For example, the code requires smoke detectors be installed in every area and space where ambient conditions permit their deployment. Where ambient conditions would adversely affect the performance, reliability and normal operation of smoke detectors, other forms of sensor technology, such as heat detection, must be used. And all systems installed in historical buildings, museums or places of worship must transmit alarm condition signals to an approved central station monitoring facility.
Preserving the historic fabric of culturally significant buildings while developing your business in this area will help establish a new comfort zone that can lead your company to further profitability.
MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.