Many professional contractors called to provide a fire alarm system in either a new or existing building have heard the owner exclaim, “I just want to meet code!” Most building owners (especially those not knowledgeable in the code process) have made the assumption that if they instruct you to “just meet code,” they will not pay a lot of money for their fire alarm system.

Rather than assume the owner has a strong background in building and fire codes, look at this constraint imposed by the owner as an opportunity to differentiate their company from the competition. You should understand that the majority of the owners who make this statement have no clue what the statement means.

What code are they referencing? Assuming they might know something about codes, and if it is new construction, they may be referencing the locally adopted building code. If it is an existing system, the jurisdiction may have adopted a fire prevention code or NFPA 101, the Life Safety Code for existing buildings.

All of these codes do reference the minimum requirements for fire alarm and detection system systems as they apply to various occupancies.

However, as all professional contractors know, there are additional codes that must be used in conjunction with the building, life safety or fire prevention codes.

First and foremost is NFPA 72-2002, the National Fire Alarm Code. As stated in the Scope of NFPA 72-2002, the code “covers the application, installation, location, performance, and maintenance of fire alarm systems and their components.”

NFPA 72-2002’s purpose is to “define the means of signal initiation, transmission, notification, and annunciation; the levels of performance; and the reliability of the various types of fire alarm systems,” NFPA 72 also defines features associated with fire alarm systems and provides the information necessary for the code user to modify or upgrade an existing fire alarm system.

The National Fire Alarm Code also establishes the minimum required levels of performance, the extent of redundancy necessary to ensure minimum levels of reliability and provides information to help ensure the quality of the fire alarm system installation.

So, is NFPA 72 the code the owner was referring to? Or was it NFPA 70-2002, the National Electrical Code? Certainly as a professional you already know that the National Fire Alarm Code refers to all wiring installation requirements in the NEC, specifically Article 760 and other articles as they apply to fire alarm systems.

So at the end of the day, the owner really means—whether he or she knows it—is that they want a code-compliant fire alarm system designed and installed to minimum requirements of at least three codes: the building code, the National Fire Alarm Code and the NEC.

Now, you could accept the instruction to “just meet code” or you could ask the owner one of my favorite questions, “What do you want to have left after the fire?” I find that this question really causes the owner to focus on why he or she is asking to have a fire alarm system installed in their building. Most owners really believe that installing the minimum required fire alarm system as defined in the building code, Life Safety Code or fire prevention code will automatically meet their fire protection goals. In fact, they are not aware that the “fire protection goal” of the various occupancy-related codes is simply to ensure that a fire in their building will not travel to surrounding buildings and cause a conflagration throughout the city.

You also have the opportunity to review—through questions posed to the owner—what functions, operations or specific areas of the building are really important to the owner’s operations or business continuity. The owner may determine that if they have a major fire and cannot recover quickly enough, their customer base will go to their competitors (and stay with them).

Or, the product manufactured in the building may be a component of a larger, more expensive product and the loss of that component will shut down operations in other buildings they own that manufacture the final product.

You can prove to your customers that you know a better way to meet their fire alarm system requirements. Asking my suggested question above and explaining the intent of the codes in force in your jurisdiction will generally encourage an owner to re-evaluate his or her decision to “just meet code.”

You now have the opportunity to develop a system that will approach the owner’s real fire protection goals for his or her specific building while at the same time moving your company to a different level above the competition. EC

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.