Whether a healthcare occupancy is a full-service hospital, assisted living facility or nursing home, codes and common sense require that the fire alarm system be reliable and operational 24/7 all year long. Contractors are aware that installing a fire alarm system in any healthcare facility during initial construction is relatively straightforward, but requires care and knowledge of the applicable codes. However, when a fire alarm system is replaced in an existing facility, a whole new array of challenges present themselves.

When approaching a fire alarm system replacement in a healthcare facility, the wise contractor will first learn as much as he or she can of the existing system’s operation to determine what will be needed for the replacement system. This information also will help determine what critical interfaces exist to ensure nothing is disconnected in error that will affect the facility’s operation. Of course, if the new system is a result of an expansion of the facility, additional information must be gathered to ensure a complete understanding of the facilities’ fire alarm system needs.

In general, healthcare facilities must meet the requirements of the Life Safety Code, NFPA 101-2008. The Life Safety Code has specific requirements and allowances regarding fire alarm systems that are not found in the building codes, so it is important that you understand these differences. Some of the differences include requirements, such as those found in Section 19.3.4.2.2, which state, “Manual fire alarm boxes in patient sleeping areas shall not be required at exits if located at all nurses’ control stations or other continuously attended staff location […] .” This allowance can only be used if the manual fire alarm boxes are visible and continuously accessible and the 200-foot travel distance requirements are not exceeded. NFPA 72 establishes a travel distance limit to ensure that an occupant will not have to search for a manual fire alarm box and also will be able to reach the box in a timely manner. Travel distance is used to accommodate the actual path necessary to get to a manual fire alarm box. This requirement becomes especially important when corridors to an exit (where a box also is required) are long.

The Life Safety Code also has requirements that alter NFPA 72 requirements. One such change is that fixed extinguishing systems protecting commercial cooking equipment in kitchens that are protected by a complete automatic sprinkler system are not required to initiate the fire alarm system.

The code also allows modifications to occupant notification through the use of a positive alarm sequence that allows staff to investigate the alarm before sounding the notification appliances. This type of signaling is allowed only in healthcare occupancies protected throughout by an approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with NFPA 13.

Before the new fire alarm system is designed and purchased, you must determine the existing system’s integration with the building management system and any security systems. The existing fire alarm system may interface with the facility’s building automation system and may affect things such as temperature and airflow. If there are existing or new security systems that monitor patient movements or are installed to prevent the kidnapping of babies, these systems will undoubtedly have an interface with the new fire alarm system and must be in working order at all times during the new system installation.

Preplanning the new fire alarm system installation is extremely important. Obviously, the existing system must remain online and in complete working order while the new system is being installed. If the owner’s intent is to bring portions of the new fire alarm system online prior to totally removing the existing system, additional care needs to be taken. This includes verifying the operation of the various interfaced systems as well as ensuring both the new and existing systems work in concert with each other.

Impairments to the existing system may need to occur during the installation of the new system. When this happens, you are responsible for developing an impairment plan. NFPA 72-2007 specifically addresses the issue of fire alarm system impairments in Section 4.6 and defines impairments as encompassing “a broad range of circumstances wherein a fire alarm system or portion thereof is taken out of service for a variety of reasons. Fire alarm systems are routinely impaired in order to perform hot work (e.g., open flame operations) in areas with automatic detection, construction, painting, etc., as well as to conduct normal fire alarm system maintenance and testing. Impairments can be limited to specific initiating devices and/or functions (e.g., disconnecting the supervising station connection during system testing), or they can involve taking entire systems or portions of systems out of service. This section is intended to help building owners control impairments of the fire alarm system(s) in their building(s) and to ensure that systems are restored to full operation and/or returned to service afterward.” Based on this understanding of impairments, you must ensure through installation preplanning that no other fire protection system will be impaired while you are working on the existing system or any interfaces to the new fire alarm system.

Preparing an impairment plan before working on the fire alarm system requires the development of mitigating measures. As NFPA 72-2007 states, “The need for mitigating measures is typically determined on a case-by-case basis.” With healthcare occupancies, one must consider the nature and duration of the impairment during the active work being conducted during the impairment. It is equally important to monitor the condition of other fire protection systems that are interfaced with the fire alarm system during the impairment.

NFPA 72-2007 also requires that the system owner or designated representative be notified when a fire alarm system or any part of it is impaired. When a zone or system is not working or is out of service due to work being performed, that event is considered an impairment. As with any new system installation in an existing building, the local fire department should be made aware of your installation and your impairment plan and be included in the plan’s development.

Finally, you must manage the new fire alarm system installation with the needs of the patients and hospital staff in mind. Your installation cannot disrupt ongoing medical procedures or patient care.

For example, you should know that the Life Safety Code allows visible alarm-indicating appliances in lieu of audible signals in critical care areas. As the code states, “It is the intent of this provision to permit a visible fire alarm signal instead of an audible signal to reduce interference between the fire alarm and medical equipment monitoring alarms.”

Additional preplanning must include avoiding all possible disruptions to healthcare services to the patients. This includes avoiding the inadvertent and unannounced sounding of alarm signals; the release of magnetically held doors; the inadvertent release of fixed extinguishing systems protecting commercial cooking equipment in kitchens; or the shutdown of important heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems.

Testing the new fire alarm system poses additional significant challenges. Specifically, the notification appliance testing must be accomplished with as little disruption as possible to the patients and staff members. In order to meet this challenge, discussions with the owner, staff and the fire department are imperative. You may be allowed to test individual circuits at different times to avoid disruption to staff member and patient activities or there may be a more creative way to test the notification appliances that would be acceptable to the fire officials. In any case, you cannot conduct the testing or commissioning of the system without planning and discussions with those who will be affected by your work. As I have stated many times in previous columns, all interfaced fire protection systems and fire safety functions (such as elevator recall and door unlocking) must be tested. These types of tests must be coordinated with the owner to avoid both legal and safety issues from developing.

Installing a new fire alarm system in an existing healthcare facility may not be an easy task, but with careful planning and clear procedures in place, you can easily meet the challenges.

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.