Most of us in the electrical field are aware of the various codes and standards that affect our installations. We also understand that the technical committees revise the codes on three-year cycles. Other laws and standards change infrequently. Nevertheless, these other laws and standards also affect our fire alarm system installations. And, not knowing about changes to these additional laws or standards can prove very costly to our bottom line. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) represents one such law.

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the original ADA comprehensive civil rights legislation, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. The law “broadly protects the rights of individuals with disabilities in employment, access to State and local government services, places of public accommodation, transportation, and other important areas of American life.” As we know, the law also provides requirements that affect all new, altered or existing buildings. These requirements intend to ensure these facilities remain readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.

The ADA “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodation. These places include businesses generally open to the public that fall into one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreational facilities, and doctors’ offices. The law also requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation—as well as commercial facilities, such as privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings—to comply with the ADA Standards.”

For at least the last six years, we have followed the requirements contained in the revised ADA design standards included in the relevant chapters of the Access Board’s 2004 ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). But, once again, albeit slowly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has changed the ADA and ADAAG that will apply to all future accessibility issues in new and existing buildings.

As announced by the DOJ, “On Friday, July 23, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder signed final regulations revising the Department’s ADA regulations, including its ADA Standards for Accessible Design. [ … ] The official text will be published in the Federal Register. The revised regulations will amend the Department’s Title II regulation, 28 C.F.R. Part 35, and the Title III regulation, 28 C.F.R. Part 36. Appendix A to each regulation includes a section-by-section analysis of the rule and responses to public comments on the proposed rule. Appendix B to the Title III regulation discusses major changes in the ADA Standards for Accessible Design and responds to public comments received on the proposed rules. In general, these final rules will take effect six months after the date on which they are published in the Federal Register. Compliance with the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design is permitted after that date, but not required until 18 months after the date of publication.”

You may find in Appendix B to the Title III regulation the more important issues to electrical contractors who install fire alarm systems. It is officially titled “Appendix B to Part 36, Analysis and Commentary on the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.”

One of the important changes applies to hotels and motels. The 1991 standards required transient lodging guest rooms with communication features for the hearing impaired to provide “either permanently installed visible alarms that are connected to the building fire alarm system or portable visible alarms that are connected to a standard 110-volt electrical outlet and are both activated by the building fire alarm system and provide a visible alarm when the single station smoke detector is activated.”

The 2010 standards no longer include the portable visible alarm option and instead require “that transient lodging guest rooms with communication features be equipped with a fire alarm system which includes permanently installed audible and visible alarms in accordance with NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm Code (1999 or 2002 edition).” The 2010 standards also require such guest rooms equipped with communication features to have visible notification devices that alert room occupants of incoming telephone calls and a door knock or bell. It would appear from these changes that the 2010 ADA requirements correlate with the requirements contained in model building, fire and life safety codes for new transient lodging facilities.

The 2010 standards have added a new exception for alterations to existing facilities that exempts existing fire alarm systems from providing visible alarms, unless the facility upgrades or replaces the fire alarm system itself or installs a new fire alarm system.

“Transient lodging facilities that alter guest rooms are not required to provide permanently installed visible alarms complying with the NFPA 72 if the existing fire alarm system has not been upgraded or replaced, or a new fire alarm system has not been installed.” This represents a major change from the previous requirements that have always been interpreted to require an upgrade to all existing fire alarm systems to comply with the visible signal requirements of the ADA. The law essentially states that, until a fire alarm system is upgraded or replaced, no visible signal ADA compliance is required.
Reportedly, the DOJ felt the new language provided a reasonable balance between the interests of individuals with disabilities and those of the business community. The DOJ reasoned that existing facilities will eventually become fully accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing when the facility upgrades or replaces the fire alarm system. This will add minimal costs to owners and operators.

Another key change of importance to the professional contractor occurs in the requirements for employee work areas. The 1991 standards required the facility to provide visible alarms anywhere audible fire alarm notification appliances had been provided. But, the 1991 standards did not require accessibility features, including visible alarms, in areas used only by employees as work areas. For example, in office buildings, the 1991 standards required the facility to provide visible alarms in public and common-use areas where they had provided audible fire alarm notification appliances, such as hallways, conference rooms, break rooms and restrooms.

However, the new 2010 standards provide “that where employee work areas in newly constructed facilities have audible alarm coverage they are required to have wiring systems that are capable of supporting visible alarms that comply with section 702 of the 2010 Standards.”

This requirement is now in place so that a facility may add visible alarm systems as needed to accommodate employees who are deaf or hard of hearing. The issue for contractors, of course, arises from the fact that the DOJ has not defined how to install these “wiring systems.” I suspect that a circuit brought to the first audible appliance on each floor will be one acceptable way of meeting this requirement. But my suggestion is just that. A code official may call for a circuit that may serve future visible appliances and that extends to every audible appliance in the building. Obviously, that would seriously affect a contractor’s costs and bottom line if he or she did not plan on that possibility. Of course, the goal of the new requirements intends to make an office or employee work area accessible when a disabled person works in that area. We have no way of knowing where on the floor that requirement will need to apply in the future. Because of this issue, the wise contractor will get prior approval from the authorities having jurisdiction before wiring these required circuits.

The 1991 standards set the maximum installation height for side reach to manual fire alarm boxes of 54 inches above the floor. The 2010 standards have lowered that maximum height to 48 inches above the finished floor or ground.

The issuance of the “final” version of the 2010 standards makes official the acceptance of the visible signal requirements found in the 1999 and 2002 versions of the National Fire Alarm Code, including the use of ceiling-mounted strobes. These requirements essentially remain the same as those found in the 2010 edition of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. However, you need to make certain that the authority having jurisdiction will accept your use of NFPA 72 2010 before you proceed with your installation using the requirements contained in that edition of the code. It is unlikely that a code official will not accept a more recent version of the code, now that the DOJ has at least officially recognized its existence.

Hopefully, knowing these changes will save you from facing costly overruns in your next fire alarm system installation.


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.