When maintaining low-voltage systems, there is little to guide you as to when to schedule service, other than your experience with the equipment’s past performance and the recommendations of the manufacturer. Or, maybe, you focus on providing on-call service only. However, this places you completely at the mercy of the customer’s schedule.


Most low-voltage systems receive maintenance by exception. The owner calls you when something fails to work properly or when he or she needs to ensure a system (such as a sound system in an auditorium) will work for an upcoming special event.


Typically, these systems receive little regular service. But, if you offer maintenance and service for low-voltage systems, you also likely include the maintenance and service of fire alarm systems. 


Unlike other low-voltage systems, NFPA 72 2013, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, requires fire alarm systems to receive specific periodic testing and visual inspections. In addition, the code assigns the owner the responsibility for this testing. In many cases, owners may not be aware of their responsibility. So, you should take the opportunity to show them the requirements. In fact, the code states that the responsibility for inspection, testing and maintenance of the system and for alterations or additions to the system lies with the building or fire alarm system owner. Based on this definition, inspection, testing and maintenance remains the responsibility of the property or building owner, management firm or managing individual through specific provisions in the lease, written use agreement or management contract.


Systems installed, owned or leased by a tenant become the tenant’s responsibility. Any of these people assigned the responsibility for the inspection, testing or maintenance of a fire alarm system may perform this work using their own personnel or by using a person or organization other than the building or system owner if conducted under a written contract. This is where you come in.


The code states that the installing company should provide written notice of these responsibilities to the system user. If you did not install the fire alarm system but provide low-voltage systems service, you still have the opportunity and obligation to inform them that they must follow the requirements for inspection, testing and maintenance as outlined in the code.


Moreover, the code requires that, “Where the building or system owner has delegated any responsibilities for inspection, testing or maintenance, a copy of the written delegation required … shall be provided to the authority having jurisdiction upon request.”


So, once you have established the chain of responsibility, it becomes relatively easy to schedule the service for any other low-voltage systems at the same time you perform tests on the fire alarm system.


NFPA 72 2013 requires a minimum of annual testing for all fire alarm systems. A selling point for performing these tests derives from an owner’s desire to maintain the fire alarm system in a reliable operating condition. And, properly maintaining a system will reduce false alarms. Additionally, when you have a fire alarm system under contract for inspection, testing and maintenance, the owner will come to you first (often in a no-bid situation) to add devices or appliances when he or she renovates spaces or builds on to the building.


Some equipment in a fire alarm system requires more frequent inspection. For example, in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications equipment must have all equipment locations and conditions verified semi-annually. In addition, fire alarm system detection devices and appliances must receive a visual inspection semi-annually. Depending on the size of the system, you may accomplish the annual testing in one day. Or you may wish to perform the tests in some segmented fashion, such as quarterly, to minimize your time on-site and to reduce the interruptions to the building operations.


To ensure you properly perform the work required by the code, you need to establish a test plan for the fire alarm system. NFPA 72 2013 states, “A test plan shall be written to clearly establish the scope of the testing for the fire alarm or signaling system.” And, “The test plan and results shall be documented with the testing records.”


It should be obvious that the test plan intends to outline exactly what you must test and how you must perform each test. The test plan documents what devices, and emergency system interfaces or suppression system interfaces were and were not actually tested.


The test plan needs to include instructions for those performing the tests to provide a notice of the test to both the occupants and to any supervising station (or fire department) that monitors the fire alarm system’s status. The term “impairments” covers many circumstances where a fire alarm system’s status or portion of it must be removed from service for some reason. For example, someone may routinely impair fire alarm systems for the owner or a contractor to perform hot work, construction, painting, etc., in areas with automatic detection. And, you will impair the fire alarm system to conduct normal fire alarm system maintenance and testing. You should also know that the actual system testing causes an impairment to the complete system operation. You can carefully limit these impairments by taking specific initiating devices out of service or by disconnecting a function, such as disconnecting the supervising station connection during system testing.


Under any impairment condition, the person initiating the impairment must notify the owner that a system or any part of the system will be 
offline. Impairments to systems include any out-of-service events, and the person initiating the impairment must report to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) any fire alarm system that remains out of service for more than eight hours so the AHJ can advise what appropriate measures the owner must take. “Out of service” means the entire system or a substantial portion thereof will not operate in the event of a fire emergency. When the system will remain impaired for eight hours or more, you will need to implement mitigating measures for the period that the system remains offline. These mitigating measures must meet the requirements of the authority having jurisdiction.


As stated in the Annex A of the code, “The need for mitigating measures is typically determined on a case-by-case basis. This considers the building, occupancy type, nature and duration of impairment, building occupancy level during impairment period, active work being conducted on the fire alarm system during the impairment, condition of other fire protection systems and features (i.e., sprinklers, structural compartmentation, etc.), and hazards and assets at risk. Appropriate mitigating measures range from simple occupant notification to full-time fire watch. Determining factors vary from testing-related impairments and maintenance activities during normal business through extensive impairments to high-value, high-hazard situations.”


The code requires you to correct any system deficiencies you discover during testing or maintenance. In addition, if you cannot correct a deficiency at the conclusion of your system inspection, testing or maintenance, you must inform the system owner or the owner’s designated representative of the resulting impairment in writing within 24 hours.


All of these requirements create opportunities for you as a professional contractor. Using NFPA 72 2013, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, to your advantage means you must own a copy and read it. Remember that the code offers a very distinct advantage to increase all of your low-voltage service work.