It never ceases to amaze me just how much people in our industry have been either misled or misinformed concerning technical and code information. I often encounter installers, authorities having jurisdiction, engineers, owners and architects who believe that what they “know” about fire alarm systems or the code process is “gospel.”

It starts when a building owner meets with an architect and engineering team. The owner describes what he or she wants and states that he wants this building to “just meet code.” Do you think anyone in that meeting understands what that really means? What do you think it means?

First of all, the owner thinks that, by asking the architect and engineering team to “just meet code,” he or she will get a fire safe building while avoiding all of those “frills and extras” that could be added by the design team to “gild the lily.” What the owner will get is a building that has been designed to be minimally safe. Should fire occur, it will not cause a conflagration (like the great Chicago fire). But, there is a good chance that substantial damage will occur to the building.

The architect will have little knowledge of what it takes to make the building fire safe. That is really not his or her concern. After all, when he or she went through architectural school, not one course discussed fire safety. The overriding position was (and is), “Simply follow the building code, and hope the building code requirements will not affect the ‘fabric of the design.’”

The engineering team will normally interpret the owner’s request to “just meet code” as a mandate. They must make their fire alarm system design meet the barest minimum requirements of the building code in force in that jurisdiction. Hopefully they will also know that the National Electrical Code, NFPA 70, and the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, NFPA 72, are a necessary part of these design requirements.

The next person in this chain is the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Most people in the chain assume this person knows the various code requirements, understands the operation of all fire alarm systems, and will have a few extra requirements. At the very least, the architectural and engineering teams will assume the AHJ will have a different interpretation of the codes.

All of these individuals involved thus far have no real concept of what the owner wants.

The owner then tells the architectural and engineering teams that he does not want any of their services after design approval and the city issues a permit. The owner assumes he or she can save money by not paying for engineering follow-up services. After all, the city building, electrical and fire inspectors will ensure that everything “meets code.”

What a common misconception. Indeed, these inspectors will help ensure the building and the fire alarm system “meets code.” But each inspector will base his or her inspection on what he or she knows or believes to be true. The owner assumes the inspectors have been trained to understand the myriad building fire protection systems and will be qualified to thoroughly inspect those systems.

The inspectors will not ensure the contractor has followed the specifications developed by the engineer. They won’t do the engineer’s job. They will only protect the community from this new building causing a conflagration. Nothing else is or should be required of them.

So we’ve got this far, and now the contractor gets to interpret how his or her installation will “just meet code.” Again, we hope that the contractor realizes there is more than one code to meet and will at least perform to the minimum requirements of the applicable editions of NFPA 70 and NFPA 72.

Obviously, I have taken a long time to get to this point (and believe it or not, there is a point to this). What could have been done differently given the initial scenario? The architect and engineering team could have asked one question that would focus the owner’s attention to fire protection goals rather than the “just meet code” syndrome. They could have asked, “What do you want to have left after the fire?” Such a question will surely make the owner stop and think before going forward!

The other important issue—that becomes apparent during my scenario—is the lack of knowledge of the professionals involved in the process. You and I assume that both the design professionals and the inspectors would not allow something like I’ve described to happen. That is a wrong assumption.

So what do we do about these common misconceptions and misinformation? You and I have an obligation to teach ourselves, and the other professionals mentioned above, what codes affect fire alarm system installations. We have an obligation to obtain qualified interpretations of codes and standards and share that information with other professionals in our jurisdictions. And we have an obligation to ferret out and dispel these common misconceptions that exist in our industry. Leaders in this effort can make change happen!