A contractor installed a new fire alarm system in a college dormitory and asked the owner, “How thoroughly do you want me to test the fire alarm system?” I was there to witness the system’s pre-acceptance test before we called the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to arrange for the final acceptance test. Frankly, the question momentarily stunned me.
What was your first reaction? It should have been, “Are you kidding me? The code requires a complete 100 percent test of all devices, control equipment and appliances!”
Some of you may have reasoned that, because it is a college dormitory, you would definitely perform a 100 percent test of the fire alarm system. NFPA 72 2013, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, does not differentiate by occupancy. So all fire alarm systems, regardless of the type of occupancy they protect, must always receive a 100 percent acceptance test.
This contractor said he asked the question because some AHJs he had encountered on other projects did not require the 100 percent test. As a result, he didn’t think he had to always test 100 percent of the system. Unfortunately, his question indicates a number of issues:
• A lack of knowledge of the codes and standards
• A lack of training in the proper testing of fire alarm systems
• A lack of understanding of the liability he could potentially incur through improper testing
Let’s examine each issue. First, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code has all of the testing requirements for a fire alarm system, including acceptance, reacceptance and periodic testing. The code clearly explains that the purpose of acceptance tests is to ensure the system complies with the operational requirements as defined in the approved design documents and to ensure the installation complies with the code and other applicable codes and standards (such as NFPA 70 2011, the National Electrical Code). Acceptance testing includes visual inspection to ensure the contractor has used the correct equipment, has properly located the equipment, and has avoided environmental or physical conditions that could cause false alarms or delayed detection.
The overriding goals of a complete acceptance test intend to ensure both operational reliability and mission reliability. Obviously, if the fire alarm system designer has created the system to meet a specific mission or set of goals, operational testing will ensure the system has met the owner’s goals and the system’s mission reliability.
As a contractor, you should have at your disposal the as-built drawings and the design drawings to ensure you understand the design intent. For example, because the designer intends to ensure audibility and intelligibility, he or she will indicate the power tap of each speaker on the drawings. When you measure the audibility, you might not know the average or peak ambient noise measurements that the designer used to create the design to ensure audibility throughout the space once it becomes occupied unless you review the design drawings. And obviously, the number and location of speakers installed must comply with the design to ensure the system will meet the designer’s (and owner’s) intelligibility goals.
The code-required acceptance testing also mandates that you operate the entire system for all conditions, including the system’s ability to operate all interfaced nonfire systems. Generally, these interfaced systems represent emergency control functions such as elevator recall, smoke or fire door release, HVAC shutdown, or HVAC damper control. Actuating the fire alarm system and observing the operation or nonoperation of the interfaced systems offers the only way to ensure a proper interface and correct operation of the fire alarm system.
Keep in mind, however, that exercising an emergency control function every time you actuate a related initiating device during the testing might not prove desirable or practical. In fact, in some occupancies, the owner may not even permit you to repeatedly operate those control functions. When you cannot actuate the emergency control function during an acceptance test, the code permits testing of the fire alarm or signaling system up to the endpoint connection to the interfaced system or the emergency control function.
For example, NFPA 72 2013 does not require discharge testing of suppression systems. In fact, NFPA 72 actually requires that suppression systems be “secured from inadvertent actuation, including disconnection of releasing solenoids or electric actuators, closing of valves, other actions, or combinations thereof, for the specific system, for the duration of the fire alarm system testing.” In cases such as this, instead of initiating the discharge of the suppression system, testing must include verification that the releasing circuits and components energized or actuated by the fire alarm system remain electrically monitored for integrity and will operate as intended on alarm. This is done by either connecting the circuits in a fail-safe manner or monitoring the coil and power to the relay.
Now, in case you are not familiar with where in NFPA 72 2013 to find the requirements for complete acceptance testing, you only need to review Table 188.8.131.52.
In asking the question at the beginning of this article, the contractor revealed his lack of training. Training most certainly includes learning the code requirements and the proper way to test devices, appliances and controls in a fire alarm system. You should seek out a training program to ensure you never ask this kind of question. You would never think of installing an electrical power system in a building without ensuring it worked. So why would you think a life safety system would be less important? The code requirement to completely test a fire alarm system remains black and white. The contractor retains full responsibility for this testing.
Your training should include learning how to properly test the actual equipment you used in the installation. And you and your technicians should meet the qualifications outlined in the code for both installation personnel and inspection, testing and service personnel.
The code clearly states in Section 10.5.2.1, “Fire alarm systems and emergency communications systems installation personnel shall be qualified or shall be supervised by persons who are qualified in the installation, inspection, and testing of the systems.” Additionally, the fire alarm system installer must provide evidence of his or her qualifications and/or certifications when requested by the AHJ.
I also expect that you or your supplier (who should also attend the test) have received factory training from the manufacturer of the equipment used on the project. With this knowledge, if a problem arises during any testing, trained personnel can resolve the problem immediately.
The contractor who asked how thoroughly to test the system felt very strongly that he had asked a legitimate question because he recently had an AHJ who did not require a complete test of a fire alarm system. One incident does not grant the contractor a variance to code requirements. It does not say that the AHJ must test 100 percent of the fire alarm system. No! The code requires the property owner or the contractor to meet the testing requirements.
In fact, NFPA 72 2013 does not require the AHJ to witness any of the testing unless the AHJ requests the opportunity to do so. However, the Model Building Codes may require the owner to provide such an opportunity to the AHJ. For example, the International Building Code 2012 states: “901.5 Acceptance tests. Fire protection systems shall be tested in accordance with the requirements of this code and the International Fire Code. When required, the tests shall be conducted in the presence of the building official. Tests required by this code, the International Fire Code and the standards listed in this code shall be conducted at the expense of the owner or the owner’s representative. It shall be unlawful to occupy portions of a structure until the required fire protection systems within that portion of the structure have been tested and approved.”
So, in fact, the AHJ can witness all or none of the 100 percent testing required by NFPA 72 2013. Regardless of what the AHJ does, as a contractor, you are obligated to comply with the code, which clearly states the testing requirements. Don’t lose profits or your reputation by not taking the steps to become thoroughly trained in the codes and standards. Always test 100 percent of every new fire alarm system you install, regardless of its size. William James, American philosopher and psychologist, said: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” And, in life safety, we all need to make a difference.