The U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) provides healthcare, disability benefits, pensions, home loans, life insurance and educational assistance to the nation’s military veterans and runs the country’s largest cemetery system. At the Veterans Administration Palo Alto Health Care System (-VAPAHCS) in Oakland, Calif., more than 85,000 veterans receive some of the world’s finest medical care delivered by dedicated doctors using cutting-edge technology. VAPAHCS also is a teaching hospital affiliated with Stanford University and provides training for 1,300 residents, interns and students each year. As part of an unprecedented amount of construction and expansion, with the goal of augmenting and improving the delivery of services to U.S. veterans, VAPAHCS recently replaced the entire fire alarm system in four buildings: a four-story, 400-bed hospital with research facilities, a four-story administration and research facility, a 9,000-square-foot medical imaging facility, and a six-unit emergency generator building.

Intrepid Electronic Systems Inc., Oakland, began work on the $2.6 million project in September 2008 by performing field surveys and determining what the system’s sequence of operations for evacuation, notification and response procedures would be, and by October 2010, construction and commissioning was complete. Intrepid was one of three Notifier/Honeywell General Services Administration (GSA) partners that were asked to prepare bids for the project.

“By choosing the Notifier/Honeywell product for its fire alarm replacement, the government could limit their solicitation to GSA partners,” said Kurt Brinkman, principal.

After preparing its bid based on the GSA Statement of Work, the VA’s requirements for installation and risk assessment, and the project’s design/build criteria, Intrepid won the competitively bid contract to design and install the replacement fire alarm system.

Intrepid operated as the general contractor on the project and worked directly with its only subcontractor, AON Fire Protection Engineering, Chicago, to design a system that would meet the VA’s installation guidelines.

“Although we’ve worked with AON on various projects for more than a decade, this project was the first time we’d teamed with the VA,” Brinkman said.

However, since then, Intrepid also has completed the design/build installation of a Notifier/Honeywell fire alarm system at the John Muir Medical Center, which is a 324-bed, $600 million acute-care facility in Walnut Creek, Calif.

As part of the design/build process, AON provided three phases of engineering support, including field review of the existing systems and recommendations for replacement equipment, preliminary drawings and an overview of the existing site-wide system, construction drawings, specifications and cost breakdowns, layout drawings, equipment location and voltage drop calculations, and load data for AC power requirements.

“The company was also responsible for maintaining the as-built drawings, manuals and fire alarm programming databases, and for holding weekly meetings with the VA contracting officer to provide interim progress reports and conduct the final inspections,” said Norman Clevenger, project manager.

Intrepid was tasked with providing a turnkey, design/build installation that replaced the existing fire alarm systems in four buildings without any disruption of service to the existing devices or controls. The more than 1,200 intelligent devices in the four buildings consist of pull stations; smoke, heat and duct detectors; control and monitoring modules; and notification devices (including speakers, strobes, graphic annunciators, microphone stations, programmable soft key switches to activate evacuation zones and other system interfaces), which had to be integrated with the security, mechanical and electrical systems throughout each building.

New conduit was run from the new Notifier fire alarm control panels to 35 existing or alarm panel locations. Duplicate main site fire alarm panels were maintained during the project, and both new and existing Notifier systems were monitored and controlled in parallel.

“Now, the real work began,” Clevenger said.

The requirement that the existing system remain operational led Intrepid to employ multiple shifts of installers and electricians in the migration from the existing system while the new system in each renovated area was pretested.

“After each segment of the new system became operational, the old components had to be removed immediately, which did alleviate traffic in the work zones,” Brinkman said.

The entire fire alarm system is a vast network connected by fiber optic cabling, and it serves as the backbone of a sophisticated notification system. Managed by ONYXWorks, it can be controlled from virtually anywhere on campus, and it features integrated digital voice evacuation that can broadcast multiple distinct messages simultaneously. Each of the networked control panels is individually programmed and operates independently, yet cohesively, as part of the unified network.

“The rapid response system can communicate with one person, one building, an entire campus or multiple campuses,” Clevenger said.

Upon completion, the VA’s representative, Hughes Associates Inc., Baltimore, verified and confirmed that the system was installed as specified and that it met the standards of the VA.

The many challenges
As the general contractor, Intrepid was responsible for all of the engineering, coordination, training, safety, installation and commissioning.

“Although we’ve been installing fire alarm systems and serving as an engineered system integration contractor for specialty low-voltage electronic systems since 1997, this was our first large design/build project,” Brinkman said.

Intrepid managed its general contractor responsibilities by closely coordinating the needs of the various hospital department heads and stakeholders and ensuring that hospital staff members, emergency responders and dispatch personnel were continually updated.

“Such close coordination was required because the facility had to maintain code-compliant fire protection for the duration of the installation,” Clevenger said.

Maintaining the existing fire alarm system network architecture required that each of the smoke control zones in each building has its own fire alarm panel. The new system reduced that number (35) to four networked Notifier control panels. New fiber optic cabling was installed, and the network was then tested to verify proper operation and signaling to the main site fire alarm panel located at the police dispatch center and to the monitoring system station at the maintenance facility.

“The monitoring system is scalable for future mass notification functions, if desired,” Clevenger said.

The contract also stated that installing the new fire alarm system should not disrupt any of the mechanical systems. The major concern, of course, was to ensure that the airflow to the operating theaters, imaging and intensive care units, recovery rooms, laboratories, and patient isolation units was never disrupted or impeded.

“With 24 mechanical and fire alarm zones, we needed to continuously verify the existence of the mechanical system interfaces and the operation of each of the mechanical zones,” he said.

To overcome that challenge, the company reverse-engineered the operations of the existing mechanical systems to confirm that they functioned as originally designed and then monitored them for any deviations during construction.

Another requirement imposed by the VA was that no more than two ceiling tiles could be removed at any time for the installation. If an exception was approved, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtering had to be provided, and the space had to be thoroughly vacuumed before leaving.

“Some of the patients have acute sensitivities to particulates in the air,” Brinkman said.

The crew, atypically composed of an average of two inside wiremen and an average of four sound and communication technicians, needed to obtain federal security clearances and site-specific training that covered system installation methods and the VA’s expectations on dealing with staff, patients and visitors.

“In any VA hospital, the care and respect received by the veterans is the top concern,” Brinkman said.

In that spirit, Intrepid employed veterans with military service for the project’s entire duration.

When Intrepid was finished, the company had removed an old, outdated fire alarm system and installed a new, sophisticated system in an acute care hospital without a single false alarm or complaint from the patients, visitors or hospital staff.

“Extensive coordination and communication are the key to successfully concluding any project,” Brinkman said.


BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.