Recently, while witnessing a company performing a periodic test and inspection of a large, old fire alarm system, technicians discovered the system’s trouble light was illuminated. A fire alarm’s trouble light is never insignificant. NFPA 72-2007, the National Fire Alarm Code, requires a fire alarm system to monitor its circuits and power supplies for integrity in order to ensure that, when a fault occurs in the system, the owner—or, in this case the technician witnessing the test—becomes aware as soon as it happens. This will allow the quick initiation of repairs. The use of this monitoring helps to maintain a reliable fire alarm system.

To complicate this, the trouble light provides little information about the fault location. The fire alarm system was installed more than 30 years ago, during the original construction of the 40-plus story building. So, finding that fault could prove very difficult.

An even more interesting issue occurred when the technician was told that he needed to write up the trouble indication and have the service department from his company fix the system. To my complete astonishment, he replied, “When we first started inspecting this system, it was in trouble. We did not include troubleshooting and repairing existing faults in our maintenance contract.”

I thought, “What part of ‘maintenance’ do you not understand?”

Of course, I know the bidding process. I verified that a salesperson from the technician’s company visited the site and reviewed the condition of the existing system prior to bidding. I find it very hard to believe that a good salesperson would not want to immediately point out the fault condition displayed on the control equipment to illustrate to the owner the immediate need for service.

Regardless of when the fault occurred or how difficult it might be to find the cause, when you have agreed to test, inspect and maintain a fire alarm system, you become ethically and contractually bound to ensure you do so.

The 2007 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code clearly states in Section 10.2.1.1—regarding the performance verification of a fire alarm system—that to “ensure operational integrity, the fire alarm system shall have an inspection, testing, and maintenance program. Inspection, testing, and maintenance programs shall satisfy the requirements of this Code, shall conform to the equipment manufacturer’s published instructions, and shall verify correct operation of the fire alarm system.”

Obviously, for the fire alarm system to operate correctly, it must remain in a trouble-free (fault-free) condition. Could the code state this any more clearly?

As a professional contractor, you have a responsibility to make certain that your technicians understand the procedures to follow to ensure the correct operation of the fire alarm system.

The authority having jurisdiction will want some assurance that your technicians have the appropriate qualifications. The code provides guidance, stating that “personnel who are factory trained and certified for fire alarm system service of the specific type and brand of system.” This means you must obtain training for your technicians on the brands of equipment you intend to service. Unlike the early days of conventional systems when just about any journeyman technician could troubleshoot a fire alarm system’s fault conditions, the newer microprocessor-based equipment requires specific product training.

The code also treats “personnel who are certified by a nationally recognized fire alarm certification organization acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction and personnel who are registered, licensed, or certified by a state or local authority” as qualified to test and maintain a fire alarm system.

Many states require the certification of technicians. In addition, at least one certified technician is required for work on government fire alarm system installations. Although the National Fire Protection Association does not endorse any certification organizations, the annex of the code provides information concerning fire alarm certification programs offered by the International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA) and the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET).

Of course, licenses and certifications offered at a state or local level intend to recognize those individuals who have demonstrated a minimum level of technical competency in providing service to fire alarm systems. Licenses, such as a journeyman or master electrical, will qualify in most jurisdictions as meeting the code requirement. However, basic electrical training alone will not usually provide sufficient knowledge. That’s why factory training is such an important qualification.

So, when a technician finds a fire alarm system in a troubled condition, he or she should recognize the importance of finding and repairing that fault. Remind your technicians that they should not leave an inspection of a fire alarm system in trouble without a repair plan.

As a professional contractor, you must know your ethical, contractual and code-required responsibilities when inspecting, testing and maintaining a fire system.

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.