The economic recovery has not seemed to gain the kind of momentum that some of us would like, so many of you likely need to find additional ways to add to your bottom line and continue to grow your business. You can seize one of the easiest ways to do this by becoming a provider of quality service and maintenance for fire alarm systems.
You can sell this service to both your existing electrical customers and new customers, and you can easily begin right now. As a professional contractor, you have already moved ahead of the game in terms of electrical systems knowledge. Because you’ve installed fire alarm systems, you also understand that market.
The stated goal of NFPA 72 2010, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, is to “ensure operational integrity.” In other words, follow the requirements of the code, and the fire alarm system will work correctly when called upon during an emergency.
However, NFPA 72 also puts the responsibility for inspection testing and maintenance squarely on the shoulders of the owner. Section 188.8.131.52 of the code states that, “The property or building or system owner or the owner’s designated representative shall be responsible for inspection, testing, and maintenance of the system and for alterations or additions to this system.” Based on that requirement, your phone should ring off the hook with requests for proposals to provide this service. You may reasonably ask why it doesn’t.
In any economy, the first reason often rests with the local fire prevention official who may not have the staff to enforce the current requirements of NFPA 72. In this economy, the second reason may rest with the owner who has not been convinced that maintaining his or her fire alarm system makes the best sense financially. I address this second issue later.
Now, in order for you to develop a quality and profitable fire alarm service business, you will have to read and understand the requirements of NFPA 72. Note that the requirements contained in Chapter 14, Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance, apply to both new and existing systems.
Chapter 14 is the only retroactive part of NFPA 72. Knowing this gives you a leg up against the competition that either does not follow any code or uses the wrong edition. You can use your knowledge of the code to demonstrate your professional approach to meeting your customer’s fire alarm service needs.
Making a profit by providing inspection, testing and maintenance for fire alarm systems is all about skillfully scheduling and following the code’s inspection and testing requirements.
However, before you begin to pursue this work, you should ensure your technicians meet the qualifications required to perform inspection and testing work. Generally speaking, you need technicians who pay attention to detail and efficiently deal with paperwork and follow-up.
The processes of scheduling and of notifying the owner when your technicians find defective devices and appliances is extremely important to the potential success of your new venture. Scheduling and reporting software programs can help you develop and maintain control of the daily workflow, testing reports and invoicing.
The test and inspection program may lead to additional business. Testing will disclose the need to replace devices, appliances and fire alarm control panel components. Testing and maintenance may even disclose entire systems that merit replacement.
You will want to ensure that you have reasonably priced and readily available sources for replacement parts and equipment. You may want to stock common devices and appliances, depending on the number of different manufacturers you will service. You will also want to develop relationships with distributors of the equipment in the event that you need assistance with system programming for any system you have under contract.
And, speaking of contracts, you will want to ensure you have a proper inspection, testing and maintenance agreement in place for each of your customers to ensure you limit your liability to the work you perform and do not assume any liability for the original installation work performed by other contractors (see “On the Market,” page 72, and “Life Safety Systems,” page 74, for more information).
You will also want to initiate a training program for your technicians, so they understand all fire alarm systems associated equipment must undergo a visual inspection in accordance with Table 14.3.1 and various types of tests according to the methods outlined in Table 184.108.40.206. The visual inspections ensure that no one has made changes since the last inspection that could affect equipment performance.
Obviously, when an owner adds or deletes an initiating device, notification appliance or control relay, the owner must have that component tested. The owner also must test other components related to the added or deleted component to ensure the continuity of the system’s operational integrity.
You also must perform periodic tests based on the testing frequencies outlined in Table 14.4.5 or more frequently if required by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).
The code recommends that, whenever you observe the operational failure of an emergency control function, such as fan shutdown, elevator recall or other fire safety function during a test, you must report the problem to the building owner or his or her designated representative. The code also recommends that you report the failure of the emergency control function as a possible failure of the fire safety feature and not necessarily of the fire alarm system.
The code also allows modifying the inspection and testing frequency of devices or equipment that safety considerations have made inaccessible. Examples include continuous-process operations, energized electrical equipment, radiation hazards and excessive height. You may inspect such equipment during scheduled shutdowns, if approved by the AHJ. However, the extended interval must not exceed 18 months between inspections and tests.
When you develop your sales approach to testing and maintenance, ensure you include a 100 percent initial test of the system. This will help ensure you have a good understanding of the current condition of the installed fire alarm system. Many contractors find that owners will balk at this initial test. So, you may have to negotiate a bit. And, if the owner can deliver documentation to substantiate complete testing prior to your involvement, you can make exceptions to the “required” complete test.
The code requires that, upon your request and prior to system maintenance or testing, the owner must provide you with the record of completion and any information regarding the system and system alterations, including specifications, wiring diagrams and floor plans.
Two common weak links exist in a fire alarm system. The first is the capacity and age of the batteries used for standby power. The documentation should indicate when the batteries were installed. And, you should verify the battery calculations to ensure the capacity includes a 20 percent safety factor, as the code requires.
The second weak link concerns the software used to program the fire alarm control unit. The code requires that, “When changes are made to site-specific software, the following shall apply:
“(1) All functions known to be affected by the change, or identified by a means that indicates changes, shall be 100 percent tested.
“(2) In addition, 10 percent of initiating devices that are not directly affected by the change, up to a maximum of 50 devices, also shall be tested and correct system operation shall be verified.
“(3) A revised record of completion in accordance with 10.18.2.1 shall be prepared to reflect these changes.”
The code further states that “changes to all control units connected or controlled by the system executive software shall require a 10 percent functional test of the system, including a test of at least one device on each input and output circuit to verify critical system functions such as notification appliances, control functions, and off-premises reporting.”
I promised to address the issue of the owner failing to accept the fact that maintaining the fire alarm system is in his or her best financial interest. One of the important services you can provide the owner, in this respect, occurs when you discuss the long-term costs that will result from this “short-term thinking.” Equipment that is not repaired and maintained will tend to fail catastrophically, potentially resulting in costly upgrades to the system, not to mention the liability incurred should the system fail to operate in a fire.
As you can see, this opportunity to expand your business comes with responsibility, but as a professional contractor, you have the ability and knowledge to succeed in the fire alarm system inspection, testing and, especially, maintenance business.
MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.