Retail stores or “mercantile” properties, as defined by the various building codes, include everything from small mom-and-pop stores in free-standing buildings to multiple stores in a strip mall, from large, enclosed malls to big-box stores selling books, hardware or whatever. Each of these facilities presents different fire alarm system challenges.

The single store may only require a simple conventional fire alarm system with a few detection devices and notification appliances to meet the protection goals of the owner. In many cases, the owner will want a combination fire alarm and security system. Generally speaking, the single-store owner has a strong interest in protecting his or her investment. At the same time, such an owner often has limited funds to pay for proper detection.

This can present a dangerous situation and contractors need to avoid providing a fire alarm system based on what the owner can afford. Your best advice is to become the owner’s “expert” so that he or she will come to rely on your expertise.

When asked to install fire alarm systems in “strip” malls that consist of one building with multiple individually owned stores, contractors need to ensure their understanding of building ownership and how each store’s protection will interface with the building fire alarm system. Depending on the construction of the building, notification may need to take place at a single store alarm, or in all of the stores in the building. Zoning—telling the fire department where the alarm originated—provides an important means of avoiding a delayed response to the store where the alarm condition originated.

Large malls offer a more complex situation, with the fire alarm systems interfaced to sophisticated smoke control systems and providing voice communications to partially evacuate or relocate the employees and shoppers. Individual stores and backrooms at these facilities can present a complex challenge. Regular coordination with other tradespeople and the fire department will prove important to a successful installation. To assure profit when installing these large systems, a contractor must have a complete understanding of how the fire alarm system will operate. He or she must also assign one or two key installation teams to work solely on it.

Big-box retail stores with a warehouse format present a unique environment and risks. Some of the issues identified as features of these stores include the following: large fuel loading in a warehouse format of storage, combined with exposure to the public; high ceilings and vast spaces; and poor visibility of exits and cloaking of notification appliances because of store size, shelf height and smoke. Also, in this store format, fires can grow rapidly and smoke descends quickly to obstruct sightlines.

Bulk retail stores provide home improvement products, and store a wide variety of these products on metal racks in the same area in which the store presents them for sale. Different products can end up near each other in the racks. For example, the arrangement might place pool chemicals packaged in various types of plastic containers and cardboard cartons on one end of one side of the double-row racks, while the storage area on the other side of the longitudinal vertical flue contains charcoal, lighter fluid, barbecue equipment and other barbecue supplies.

All of these issues impact the fire alarm system design. And, they especially impact the alarm notification appliance layout. The contract should carefully consider the opening day “stocked and ready” store configuration before installing the appliances in these stores.

According to National Fire Protection Association statistics, about one of every 10 reported structure fires in store or mercantile properties started on the sales or showroom area; seven percent started in the kitchen; 7 percent started on exterior wall surfaces; 6 percent started in laundry rooms or areas; 5 percent began in maintenance shops or areas; 5 percent originated in attics, ceiling/roof assemblies or concealed spaces; and 5 percent began in supply storage rooms or areas.

From 1994 through 1998, an average of 17,900 outside and other fires on or in store and mercantile properties per year caused an average of one civilian death, 69 civilian injuries, and $7.2 million in direct property damage per year. An average of 12,300 vehicle fires on these premises caused three civilian deaths, 102 civilian injuries and $28.7 million in direct property damage per year.

Contractors who want to get involved in specifying detection devices and their layout in accordance with the National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72-2002, should consider the reality of the statistics and issues of concern to retail fire protection and life safety in general.

In order to provide a reliably operating fire alarm system and still make a profit, it’s wise for the contractor to carefully review the type of retail facility and install the precise fire alarm system needed. Planning before the installation often proves more important than actually doing the work.

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.