I recently realized that our failure to properly train fire alarm system technicians has created a group of workers who simply do not understand the reasons they do what they do. When a technician asks for the rationale behind a procedure, we often respond, “Because the code requires it.”
Of course, when we do this, we answer truthfully. Many things technicians must do for electrical installations come from requirements within NFPA 70 2012, the National Electrical Code. And, this truth applies to a long list of installation requirements for fire alarm systems where the requirements within NFPA 72 2013, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, apply. However, many newcomers to our industry do not understand the code process. For example, many contractors remain unaware that the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code does not, itself, require a fire alarm system be installed. Instead, once an adopted building code, fire prevention code, other state or local statute, or NFPA 101 2012, Life Safety Code, requires the installation of a fire alarm system, NFPA 72 2013 contains the requirements of how to complete such an installation.
We need to understand the model building code process, NFPA’s codes and standards process, and the interrelationship of the various codes and standards. Also, we really must understand which codes and standards apply to fire alarm system and emergency communications systems installations.
The first step occurs when a jurisdiction adopts a building code. The building code requirements only apply to new construction. Building occupancy determines the scope of the requirements. After adoption, the building code then becomes law.
Each building code references other codes and standards, which also become law by reference. This last fact is very important. You must know which edition of the building code the particular jurisdiction has adopted because it defines which NFPA 72 edition applies to the particular area. For example, the International Building Code (IBC) 2012 edition references the 2010 edition of NFPA 72.
In some cases, a state or local jurisdiction will adopt a model building code and then modify the referenced codes and standards. Some states adopted the 2009 edition of the IBC but then modified the NFPA 72 reference to include the 2010 edition of that code. This happened, in most cases, because the 2009 IBC added the requirement that all Group E (K–12 schools) must use an occupant notification signal using an emergency voice/alarm communication system (EVACS) that meets the requirements of the referenced NFPA 72. In the case of the 2009 IBC, the referenced NFPA 72 was the 2007 edition, which has little guidance for emergency communications systems when compared to the 2010 edition.
If you are aware of the NFPA 72 requirements for an EVACS, you should also review the IBC 2012 for additional requirements. For example, in an alarm condition, the speakers must operate “on a minimum of the alarming floor, the floor above and the floor below.” The building code also defines where you must install speakers: “Speakers shall be provided throughout the building by paging zones. At a minimum, paging zones shall be provided as follows: 1. Elevator groups 2. Exit stairways 3. Each floor 4. Areas of refuge.”
In addition, you must provide a manual override for emergency voice communication on a selective and all-call basis for all paging zones, and you must have the capability to broadcast live voice messages by paging zones on a selective and all-call basis.
A permissive requirement in the IBC allows the owner or occupant to use the EVACS for more than just fire alarm signaling: “The emergency voice/alarm communication system shall be allowed to be used for other announcements, provided the manual fire alarm use takes precedence over any other use.”
Finally, understand how the authority having jurisdiction enforces the code. The building official enforces the building code, and, when the building code (or other jurisdictional code) requires a fire alarm system or EVACS, the building official will rely on the fire official to review the fire system or EVACS. Generally, the jurisdiction will not issue an occupancy permit until the fire official signs off on the fire alarm system or EVACS installation.
I hope I have convinced you of the importance of knowing the specific codes and standards your jurisdiction has adopted and how they relate to and complement each other. We need to teach this to new technicians, so they understand what it takes to install a truly code-compliant fire alarm system or emergency communications system.
When preparing a bid for a fire alarm system or EVACS, ensure your customer knows that meeting the code means adhering to all of the adopted building code requirements, including all referenced codes.
Knowing the codes in play will help you to do things right and will ensure you make a profit when installing these important life safety systems.