“We can’t occupy our building?” This is not a question that an experienced electrician wants to hear. But, I am sure many of you have heard that question directly or worked for a project manager who has.

All too often I have seen a highly competent electrical team plan its electrical installation in clear and concise detail but perform the fire alarm system installation the “old” way. It is not until things start going haywire that team members realize the old way of doing things just won’t work in today’s technology advanced industry.

I think that part of the reason is that the fire alarm system is a small amount of the overall electrical contract value. Recently, I had the occasion to review a large high-rise system installation that had gone wrong from day one. This will serve as an example of what not to do.

Once the project was awarded, the electrical contractor began negotiating with fire alarm system suppliers. After choosing the supplier based on the specifications requirements and price, the contractor made his first big mistake: he told the supplier to remove all oversight for the fire alarm system because his project manager was “experienced” in fire alarm system installations. They would not be needing the suppliers help beyond programming and final connections.

Now, the manager may have been experienced in fire alarm system installations, but this was a large building. Even if the contractor thought the project manager would be entirely focused on the fire alarm system installation, this was not a smart move.

The contractor failed to recognize the complexity of the new fire alarm system technology he was installing and how important it was to pay attention to wiring details and cable requirements. To be fair to the supplier, all of that information was in the submittal package and on each drawing. The contractor’s second mistake was giving different electricians throughout the project the responsibility of installing the fire alarm system wiring.

The project manager did not understand the complexity of the new fire alarm technology and the requirements to ensure the correctness of the wiring details and importance of close supervision of the system installation.

The project manager was used to dealing with older technology where he could bring different floors on line separately and bring it all together at the end of the project with very little coordination.

Imagine his surprise when, even though each floor had a fire alarm control unit, he found that wiring mistakes would not allow the fire alarm control unit to interrogate the devices and set the system to operational status. In addition, programming issues that needed to be coordinated between floors could not work (therefore causing multiple control unit error signals).

His first response, and third mistake, was to blame the equipment. The fire alarm equipment from the major manufacturers in today’s marketplace is generally high quality and reliable. As you might imagine, the replacement equipment performed the same as the original because there was nothing wrong with the original equipment.

Meanwhile, the scheduled day of occupancy loomed. Finally, a call was placed to the supplier asking for a technician to troubleshoot the system issues over the phone. The supplier’s technical assistance was not forthcoming.

The boss made the final mistake: he fired his foreman and demanded that the supplier fix the system.

Days were spent rewiring the system, reprogramming the fire alarm control units on each floor to properly communicate with the master control unit, and adding devices and components that were damaged by the many electricians unfamiliar with fire alarm system installations. The contractor had to explain to the owner why he would not be occupying his building on the originally promised schedule. The cost overrun on the fire alarm system depleted the contractor’s profits to a slim margin of what he originally expected.

All of this happened because the electrical contractor did not understand that today’s technology is more complex. He cannot simply assume his project managers or electricians have a thorough and uniform knowledge of the components’ operation or installation needs. You must ensure that you have the technical expertise to deal with new technology requirements.

The old adage of being “penny wise and pound foolish” comes to mind. The contractor thought he would be saving money and adding to his profit margin by assuming the expertise to deal with the new fire alarm systems. Instead, by not understanding his limitations in the fire alarm systems field, he lost money and any future work with the owner.

Learn from someone else’s mistakes. Don’t put yourself in the position of standing in front of the owner explaining that he can’t occupy his building because you tried to be more “efficient.” 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.