Inevitably, when I am in the field, a contractor will ask what code he or she should follow. Generally, the question stems from a previous surprising experience of the contractor when he or she discovered that some portion of a job did not comply with one of the applicable codes that the jurisdiction adopted. For example, many contractors express surprise that they must follow more than just NFPA 72 2010, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, and the National Electrical Code (NEC).

As I have stated in previous articles, NFPA 72 2010 has numerous application and installation requirements, but it does not require the installation of a fire alarm system in any occupancy type. The requirement to install a fire alarm system begins in the building code or in NFPA 101, the Life Safety Code, whichever has been adopted by law in the jurisdiction.

Typically, jurisdictions will initially adopt the International Building Code (IBC) as law. Then, every three to six years, the jurisdiction will readopt, or update with amendments, the latest version of the IBC. The adopted edition of the IBC will contain the minimum fire alarm system requirements for each type of building occupancy.

For new construction, these IBC requirements create a starting point. The building code will then reference NFPA 70, the NEC, and NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. These documents become part of the legal installation requirements for the fire alarm system.

As a result, in most jurisdictions, there are at least three codes that you must follow in order to properly install a fire alarm system. The state or local authority having jurisdiction may also have promulgated additional requirements that will specifically affect the design and installation of a fire alarm system. So, a prudent contractor will always ask the local fire official if additional rules exist.

Having stated all of the above, you should also know that the owner may need to meet even more stringent requirements dictated by the insurer for the property. Once again, a wise contractor will ask the owner about any requirements a so-called private authority having jurisdiction may have specified. This will help minimize any surprises at the end of the project when you attempt to obtain the occupancy permit and receive payment for your work.

But, what about an existing building where the owner has asked you to either install a new fire alarm system or upgrade an existing system?

Much of what I have discussed above may apply. However, in place of the building code, most jurisdictions will have adopted a fire prevention code (FPC) for existing buildings. This FPC may consist of the International Code Council’s International Fire Code; NFPA 1, the Fire Code; or NFPA 101. In this case, the adopted FPC will provide the minimum fire alarm system requirements for each type of existing building occupancy. In addition, the FPC will reference the applicable editions of the NEC and National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. Once again, these documents will become part of the legal installation requirements for the fire alarm system.

As you now can clearly see, you will always need to follow more than one code. And, each code contains a set of minimum requirements that you must comply with when designing and installing a fire alarm system. Finally, you must incorporate mandates from the appropriate codes whether your work involves a new building or an existing building.

Legal advisers often urge contractors to always follow the requirements contained in the most recent edition of an applicable technical document (code) for the particular type of system being designed or installed. Following that advice, every fire alarm system installed today should meet the application and installation requirements of the 2010 edition of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.

However, as mentioned above, the Building Code or FPC will establish the referenced edition of the installation documents. For example, the 2009 edition of the IBC will reference the 2007 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code. The “rule” in this case dictates that—unless you can obtain a variance to use the 2010 edition of the code—you are bound by law to follow the minimum application and installation requirements of the 2007 edition. Wisdom may dictate that you obtain such a variance so that your installations will always meet the most current requirements.

In general, you may not see any advantage to seeking such a variance. But, in some cases, the later edition of the code will allow for more cost-effective installation requirements or overturn a previous requirement based on more current research.

For all of the above reasons, you can readily see the wisdom of knowing the adopted codes in your jurisdiction and the wisdom of following all of them.


MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates, Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office. He can be reached at wmoore@haifire.com.