“I always do class A work!” That was the answer I got when I asked the fire alarm system contractor whether or not he had wired the system in a Class A fashion. Although he was attempting to mechanically install the system in a quality—or using his term, “Class A”—fashion, the answer didn’t specifically ensure that it was done that way, making his response the wrong answer.

It reminded me that many in our profession tend to trade off a high level of quality by accepting that something is “good enough” if it allows a faster (read cheaper) installation. What some have forgotten is that quality plays an important part in the reliability or mission effectiveness of the installed fire alarm system.

We have become obsessed with establishing the minimum requirements for a fire alarm system installation and then proceed to accept those minimums as the maximum requirements for a quality installation.

Section 1.2.1 of the National Fire Alarm Code states that, “The purpose of this code is to define the means of signal initiation, transmission, notification, and annunciation; the levels of performance; and the reliability of the various types of fire alarm systems. This code defines the features associated with these systems and also provides the information necessary to modify or upgrade an existing system to meet the requirements of a particular system classification. It is the intent of this code to establish the required levels of performance, extent of redundancy, and quality of installation but not to establish the methods by which these requirements are to be achieved.”

Note that the term “reliability” and “quality” appear in the requirement, but no where in the code is quality or reliability defined. Does this mean the technical committee didn’t care enough about these two important parts of fire alarm system installations to define the terms? Of course not. The technical committee has made the assumption that anyone associated with fire alarm system installations would already understand the standard definition of each term in the context of the requirement.

Webster defines quality as “high grade” or “great excellence.” Reliable can be defined as “persons, objects or ideas that can be depended upon with confident certainty.” Reliability of fire alarm systems can be further defined as “the measure of the degree of certainty that the system will achieve its intended objective.”

Using those definitions, how do we judge the reliability of a fire alarm system installation? As it turns out, there are four major factors that add up to the reliability determination: design, equipment, installation and maintenance.

The following questions provide a solid indication on how well a fire alarm system will perform.

¦ Is the system designed “by persons who are experienced in the proper design, application, installation, and testing of fire alarm systems,” as required by National Fire Alarm Code?

° Does the company that manufactured the equipment have long-term experience in manufacturing fire alarm system equipment?

° Is all of the equipment used in the installation listed for fire alarm system use?

° Is the wiring and raceway (if applicable) installed in accordance with the National Electrical Code (NEC)?

° Is the wiring, electrical boxes and fire alarm system equipment installed in a workmanlike manner?

° Are the installation personnel “supervised by persons who are qualified and experienced in the installation, inspection, and testing of fire alarm systems,” as required by Section 4.3.3 of NFPA 72-2002?

° Is the owner committed to maintaining the fire alarm system?

° Is there a contract in place for fire alarm system testing and maintenance with a company in compliance with NFPA 72-2002, Section 10.2.2.5, “Service personnel shall be qualified and experienced in the inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems?”

If the answer is “yes” to all of the above, the fire alarm system will operate reliably for at least the term of the test and maintenance contract. If the system is properly maintained, the life of the electronic equipment can be extended 20 to 25 years.

The mechanical installation of the equipment and wiring of the contractor I quoted at the beginning of this story was excellent. He did not claim to know the code from memory, but he did have a copy in his truck and it was obvious from his basic knowledge of the code that his initial response to my question was in jest. His installation had “quality” written all over it.

The code explicitly states the intent of the technical committee to include quality as a requirement and it is incumbent on all of us designers, contractors, owners and authorities having jurisdiction, to remember that “good enough” is not acceptable.

So, the next time you are in a position to judge an installation’s reliability, begin with an evaluation of its quality first. The rest should be easy. EC

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.