As I have mentioned in this column before, upgrades and renovations to existing fire alarm systems are a consistent opportunity for electrical contractors to find work in this economy.
First, if electrical contractors have structured their company to include inspection, testing and maintenance contracts with all of their fire alarm customers, they can easily remain aware of the “health” and reliability of the systems under their watchful care. The most important factor related to this opportunity is to ensure your testing personnel provides the necessary feedback on a real-time basis to you regarding what they find during their inspections and tests. Once you are aware of a problem, let your customers know what issues they need to deal with and how you can help them.
Another important factor comes from ensuring you have complete documentation for each fire alarm system you inspect, test and maintain. For example, do you have the model number and date installed for the fire alarm system control unit for each of your contracts? Do you ensure that the respective manufacturer still supports each of these control units? Have you already had to “second source” replacement parts because the manufacturer does not support the fire alarm control unit?
You do your customer no favor by finding a repair part, especially a used one, from a unauthorized source and then using that part to allow the fire alarm system to “limp along.” In addition, you may incur more liability by trying to maintain an obsolete fire alarm system.
As with any problem that needs attention, time is of the essence. In the case of a fire alarm system, once you know a system is impaired, you are required to take certain steps to mitigate the impairment.
Since the 2002 edition, there have been impairment requirements in the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code that apply to both the owner and contractor. The code requirements include the following:
1 Notifying the system owner when any part of a system is impaired
2 Maintaining a record of the impairment for at least a year
3 Developing mitigation measures that are acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction
4 Notifying the system owner when the impairment is cleared
Obviously, a system that is impaired because you have taken out a detection device to replace it is not as serious as when the entire system is impaired due to a major issue with the fire alarm control unit. It is equally important for each of your technician teams involved with the inspection, testing and maintenance of fire alarm systems to understand which type of impairment is critical versus one that can wait for a short period of time until a part is found.
Keep in mind that often the fire alarm system monitors the automatic sprinkler system in the building, and you would never want a sprinkler activation, whether for a fire or not, to occur without the fire alarm system notifying the fire department. As explained in the code annex, “The need for mitigating measures is typically determined on a case-by-case basis. This considers the building, occupancy type, nature and duration of impairment, building occupancy level during impairment period, active work being conducted on the fire alarm system during the impairment, condition of other fire protection systems and features (i.e., sprinklers, structural compartmentation, e.g.), and hazards and assets at risk.”
“Appropriate mitigating measures range from simple occupant notification to full-time fire watch. Determining factors vary from testing-related impairments and maintenance activities during normal business through extensive impairments to high-value, high-hazard situations.”
The International Fire Code (IFC) and NFPA 1, the National Fire Code, both have requirements that address impairments to fire protection systems. The IFC, as an example, states that the extent and duration of the impairment must be determined; the owner, manager, alarm company (i.e., central station) and insurance carrier must be notified; and the fire department must be notified.
All of these precautions must be followed when testing, repairing or replacing a fire alarm system in a building.
Despite all of these precautions, renovating and upgrading fire alarm systems can become a lucrative source of business for the professional contractor. And, even if you do not have a current inspection, testing and maintenance agreement with your customers, hopefully you at least have developed strong relationships with your customers that will cause them to think of you when they need to upgrade or replace their fire alarm systems.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.