A brief history of how fire alarm codes came about

Many people are blissfully unaware of why we have fire alarm system codes and standards. Essentially, they were caused by “Government Intervention.” Initially, fire alarm systems were installed in cities and towns to simply help notify the fire department.

As described in the SFPE/NFPA History of Fire Protection, in 1847, New York became the first American city to begin construction of a municipal fire alarm system required by ordinance “to construct a line of telegraph, by setting posts in the ground, for communicating alarms of fire from the City Hall to different fire stations, and [to] instruct the different bell-ringers in the use of said invention.” The chief engineer for the city, Cornelius Anderson “summed up the promise of the proposed fire alarm system in his annual report of 1847: … this system would … [prevent] nearly all false alarms, and at the same time transmit the alarm in case of fire to all parts of the City with such certainty and promptitude that it would be the means of saving annually to the city a sum nearly equal to the cost of its erection … and maintenance.”

This became the first acknowledged manual fire alarm system and was promoted by local government. Of course, this promotion led to more public awareness of fire alarm systems in general and more interest developed for the installation of automatic warning systems in buildings. As a result of state and local governments requiring more fire safety, manufacturers and installers reacted with more automatic systems. As technology develops, government bodies tend to write more requirements for fire alarm systems and to require conformance with NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code.

Most contractors are aware of the requirement for single- and multistation smoke alarms in every residence built in the country. This is an obvious area of government intervention to require the public to be protected. It is also a perfect example of the government creating opportunities for contractors.

Most building codes in place today were generated as a result of major fires in our country. Each time there has been a major fire, the codes have changed and as a result are stricter today than when first written. But again, the codes in place today are a result of government efforts to ensure equal access to fire protection for the public.

A more recent example of government intervention to make our built environment safer is the 2003 nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I. This fire caused Rhode Island legislators to respond with hearings and to develop appropriate legislation in response to the horrible loss of life to try to ensure a similar situation would not happen again.

Legislators set a goal to make Rhode Island “the safest state in the nation.” In their report to the citizens, the legislators also stated, “Law and regulation changes, while necessary, are not sufficient. Rhode Island needs to be a place where fire safety is valued and considered essential by private individuals, by businesses, and by groups and associations of all types. A culture of compliance is requisite.”

Some of the issues addressed by the new legislation required that the “grandfather clause” be eliminated from all state codes and referenced codes and standards. The state also adopted the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes NFPA 1 (Uniform Fire Code) and NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code), 2003 editions, for new and existing buildings effective Feb. 20, 2004.

Additional requirements that affect systems installed by contractors included (not all requirements of the R.I. Fire Safety Code are reprinted here):

• Fire alarm systems that are municipally connected in all nightclubs with occupancies of 150 or greater and in all Class A and B places of assembly, by July 1, 2004.

• Require either an occupancy adjustment of minus 20 percent for the lack of sprinklers and 10 percent for the lack of fire alarms or a fire fighter on duty at any nightclub with an occupancy load of 150 or greater building that is without sprinklers and fire alarms.

• Retain Rhode Island’s fire alarm requirements that are more stringent than NFPA.

• Require “hard-wired” smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, with combined detectors specifically allowed, in three-family dwellings by July 1, 2008.

• Require that alarm systems sound, that all lighting return to normal levels, and that conflicting sounds or visuals stop on the actuation of any smoke detector or fire alarm, effective Feb. 20, 2004.

Similar requirements are now being considered in other states across the nation. So what does all of this “government intervention” mean to the contractor? In one word: opportunities. The government is involved in our businesses daily and we do not always perceive that involvement in a positive sense. But it should be obvious that when it comes to safety requirements, not only is the government’s involvement necessary but it provides a sense of well-being in the community and opportunities for the fire alarm systems and electrical contractor.

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.