As you read the question above, you may think, “How can this make sense? What do you mean ‘a new class of electrician?’ And, as a business owner, why do I care? How does this affect me?”

The soon-to-be-released 2008 “Profile of the Electrical Contractor,” performed by Renaissance Research & Consulting Inc. for ELECTRICAL- CONTRACTOR, shows a growing number of contractors working in fire and life safety systems. Traditionally, that number has been low, but it’s not staying that way. Now, more than 67 percent of electrical contractors are actively engaged in security and life safety systems. (See next month’s issue for the actual numbers from the profile.) The future is bristling with change.

The quest for clear and relevant information during an emergency has become increasingly prevalent in systems proposals. The national model codes and standards have responded by writing requirements that affect the design, installation, testing, maintenance and use of fire alarm voice communication and mass notification systems. This should materially affect the business plan of every electrical contractor who desires to expand into a lucrative and satisfying portion of the electrical enterprise.

So, to properly adjust and respond to this redefining of the electrical business, the new class of electrician must understand the changes in technology. He or she must specifically develop an understanding of the computer-based fire alarm and communications systems.

While younger contractors have not materialized to fill vacancies in the tradesman pipeline created by retirements and other causes of attrition within the electrical industry, the proportion with apprenticeship, trade or vocational school training increased from 25 percent to 29 percent. A greater emphasis on vocation-specific education and practical trade skills, and an understanding of codes and standards, have elevated the overall competency of the trade.

A professional contractor must understand all the subtleties of changes affecting his or her business. Of course, with the code and technology changes come opportunities. The well-prepared contractor will always lead the competition, but it takes effort, preparation and determination to know, understand and do.

As a business owner, what should you look for? What information should you gain to prepare to respond to change within the scope of your business?

Some recent changes have either already occurred or reached the proposal stage and will affect both the National Electrical Code (NEC) and the National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72. For example, at the NFPA Standards Council meeting in July 2007, the council established a new technical committee for the 2010 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code. This new technical committee, Emergency Communications Systems (SIG-ECS), will have the primary responsibility for documents on the installation and performance of emergency communications systems (including mass notification systems) and their components. The committee will add a new chapter to the code’s 2010 edition that will contain requirements for the new mass notification systems. Understand these new requirements to begin installing these systems.

Another example: The 2008 NEC has a new Article 708 titled “Critical Operations Power Systems (COPS).” The article’s provisions apply to the installation, operation, monitoring, control and maintenance of the portions of the premises wiring system intended to supply, distribute and control electricity to designated critical operations areas (DCOA) in the event of disruption to elements of the normal system.

The Code defines COPS as power systems for facilities or parts of facilities that require continuous operation for the reasons of public safety, emergency management, national security or business continuity. Critical operations power systems include those systems so classified by municipal, state, federal or other codes by any governmental agency having jurisdiction or by facility engineering documentation establishing the necessity for such a system. These systems may include but not be limited to power systems, HVAC, fire alarm, security, communications and signaling for designated critical operations areas. Of course, this classification may include mass notification systems as one of these critical systems and under certain circumstances will need a COPS.

Contractors who perform fire and life safety system installations must remind themselves that if these systems do not pass the commissioning and acceptance tests, this failure will delay the issuance of a certificate of occupancy.

The new class of electrician will need to understand and address these issues. He or she must be familiar with how applicable code requirements for these new systems will influence the design, installation, testing, maintenance and use. They will need more complete and constant training to ensure these important systems are installed properly and are code compliant.

Each electrical business owner must ask himself or herself, “What will I do to prepare for these dynamic changes to the scope of my business?”

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.