I often get calls from professional contractors who have become involved in design/build electrical projects that include the design and installation of fire alarm systems. The reasons for the calls vary, but most are born of surprise and frustration. They originally planned to ask their fire alarm systems equipment supplier to assist them with the system design, and they would simply install the system based on that design, meaning they would carry the equipment costs as designed by the supplier.

They become both surprised and frustrated because—after they have given their price and signed their contract—they find out they must have a fire protection engineer create the fire alarm system design.

Granted, this issue primarily arises on government projects, but when you have not included the cost of design services by a licensed fire protection engineer in your contract, you can count on a diminished profit margin.

Not only did you omit the cost of design services in the original price, but, in many cases, the design will require more equipment than the supplier originally planned for your project. This deficiency arises because the supplier overlooked other design documents that the government requires a designer and installer to follow in addition to the building and fire codes.

This proves especially true for military and General Services Administration (GSA) projects. For example, the GSA document “Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (P-100)” is described as “a building standard; it is not a guideline, textbook, handbook, training manual, or substitute for the technical competence expected of a design or construction professional.”

If you participate in a GSA design/build project, you would find out that the local fire official does not serve as the authority having jurisdiction. As stated in the 2010 edition of P-100, “The GSA regional fire protection engineer is the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) for technical requirements in this chapter, including all fire protection and life safety code interpretations and code enforcement requirements. As the AHJ, the GSA regional fire protection engineer has the right to revise the specific requirements within this chapter based on a technical evaluation and analysis and the project’s specific needs.”

In addition to requiring you to work with a different AHJ, P-100 has special requirements that take precedence over the requirements in NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code and the International Building Code (IBC).
For example, you must install all fire alarm systems in GSA buildings as an emergency communication system when any one of the following conditions exists:

  • “The building is two or more stories in height above the level of exit discharge.
  • “The total calculated occupant load of the building is 300 or more occupants.
  • “The building is subject to 100 or more occupants above or below the level of exit discharge.”

Additionally, with the exception of mass notification services, a fire alarm and emergency communication system may not integrate with other building systems, such as building automation, energy management or security systems.

In U.S. courthouses, P-100 also requires that fire alarm and emergency communications system control equipment includes redundant control units installed within the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) Command and Control Center. It states, “these redundant control units must have the same capabilities and operation as the main fire alarm and emergency communication system control unit, including annunciation, except there must be no capability to initiate ‘Signal Silence’ (turning notification appliances off), ‘Acknowledge’ (of any signal), and ‘Reset’ (resetting the system to normal) operations.”

These requirements alone could wipe out your profit margin for the entire electrical project!

When you approach any government project, you must understand the complete requirements before submitting your bid. It certainly makes sense to ask specific questions prior to finalizing your submittal.

One final example comes to mind of when a contractor asked me to become involved in a military project that had computer data centers within the building. During the design process, I discovered a referenced military document in the specifications that required air sampling-type smoke detectors for data centers. The design required eight of these expensive smoke detection units. Unfortunately, the contractor had not included a fire protection engineer before he bid the project, and he faced a very substantial cost overrun.

Design/build projects at government facilities have become more popular. Nevertheless, the wise contractor should approach them with eyes wide open to avoid the many pitfalls. While design/build offers a cost-effective alternative to deliver a project to an owner, the process does not relieve any of the players from doing what’s right.


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.