The National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72, Section 10.4.1.1 requires trained technicians to perform an acceptance test on all new fire alarm systems. Specifically, the section states, “All new systems shall be inspected and tested in accordance with the requirements of Chapter 10. The authority having jurisdiction shall be notified prior to the initial acceptance test.”

Many contractors assume the testing required by NFPA 72-2007 applies strictly to the components that make up the fire alarm system. However, the integration of fire protection systems and the fire alarm system within a building significantly broadens the scope of acceptance and periodic testing. In fact, the fire alarm system often serves as a management tool to oversee the operational readiness of all other fire protection systems.

NFPA 72-2007, Section 6.8, provides for a fire alarm system to monitor alarm and supervisory conditions of all building fire protection systems. Section 6.16 lays out the requirements for when the fire alarm system provides a command and control interface with other building fire safety functions, such as elevator recall; elevator shut-down; fire-door release; door unlocking; smoke control actuation; stairwell pressurization; smoke and fire damper release; and heating, ventilating and air conditioning system (HVAC). In addition, the 2007 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code includes provisions for the interfacing of mass notification systems with building fire alarm systems.

Contractors will find many of these systems and functions in both new and existing educational buildings. Fire alarm system replacement in an existing building provides additional challenges when a contractor must perform an acceptance test.

Up for the test

By focusing on the alarm system replacement or upgrade, contractors may overlook the other functions and systems that are controlled or monitored by the fire alarm system. The contractor must program and test these interfaced systems to ensure they perform as originally intended for the safety of the occupants.

For more than a decade, common practice has provided for the simultaneous commissioning of all systems in a building. The wise contractor will carefully consider this when they have the responsibility to install a fire alarm system in any building but especially in an educational building.

The Building Commissioning Association (BCA) serves the fast-growing building commissioning industry. Its stated mission is to guide the building commissioning industry through establishing best practices, educating providers and promoting the benefits of building commissioning.

According to the BCA Web site (www.bcxa.org), “The BCA’s goal is to achieve high professional standards, while allowing for the diverse and creative approaches to building commissioning that benefit our profession and its clients. For this reason, the BCA focuses on identifying critical commissioning attributes and elements, rather than attempting to dictate a rigid commissioning process. Building commissioning provides documented confirmation that building systems function according to criteria set forth in the project documents to satisfy the owner’s operational needs. Commissioning existing systems may require developing new functional criteria to address the owner’s current requirements for system performance.”

According to the BCA, the definition of the purpose of commissioning is:

“The basic purpose of building commissioning is to provide documented confirmation that building systems function in compliance with criteria set forth in the Project Documents to satisfy the owner’s operational needs. Commissioning of existing systems may require the development of new functional criteria in order to address the owner’s current systems performance requirements.”

Essentially, commissioning of the fire alarm system and any building systems integrated with the fire alarm system is a quality management process, with the initial activities related to quality assurance (installation and system programming) and subsequent activities (testing and maintenance) related to quality control.

In order for contractors to ensure a proper fire alarm system commissioning process takes place, they must focus on details, such as scheduling, participation of various parties, actual lines of reporting, level of documentation, development of prefunctional testing requirements, and detailed functional performance test procedures.

Unfortunately, when retrofitting a fire alarm system into an existing educational building, the parties who participated in the initial installation and test of the integrated systems most likely will not have any part in the retrofit project.

This requires that the fire alarm system contractor review the original system documentation in detail to determine what other systems integrate with the existing fire alarm system. The contractor also must determine what fire safety functions the fire alarm system controls.

The BCA defines “Retrocommissioning (a type of existing-building commissioning)” on the Web site as “a systematic process for investigating, analyzing, and optimizing the performance of building systems by improving their operation and maintenance to ensure their continued performance over time. Retrocommissioning helps make the building systems perform interactively to meet the owner’s current facility requirements.”

All of this information should alert the professional contractor to pause before quoting a price to replace an existing fire alarm system. The contractor must first be sure of the detailed operation requirements for the existing system.

Test requirements

NFPA 72-2007, Section 10.6.2.3 requires those performing all inspections, testing and maintenance after the initial installation to provide a record that includes the following information:

1. Date

2. Test frequency

3. Name of property

4. Address

5. Name of person performing inspection, maintenance, tests or combination thereof, affiliation, business address and telephone number

6. Name, address and representative of approving agency(ies)

7. Designation of the detector(s) tested; for example, ‘Tests performed in accordance with Section _________.’

8. Functional test of detectors

9. Functional test of required sequence of operations

10. Check of all smoke detectors

11. Loop resistance for all fixed-temperature, line-type heat detectors

12. Other tests as required by the equipment manufacturer’s published instructions

13. Other tests as required by the authority having jurisdiction

14. Signatures of tester and approved authority representative

15. Disposition of problems identified during test (e.g., owner notified, problem corrected/successfully retested, device abandoned in place)”

Item 9 references testing all of the required sequence of operations. An input/output matrix offers one method to define the required sequence of operations and to document the actual sequence of operations (See Figure A.10.6.2.3(9) from NFPA 72-2007).

As a minimum, the contractor should request the as-built drawings and the system operational matrix.

If this documentation does not exist, the contractor must either perform a complete functional test of the existing fire alarm system or determine the owner’s fire protection goals and how the owner expects the fire alarm system to perform. Then, the contractor must develop a detailed design to accomplish those goals.

Design

A simple guide for the best practices for design and commissioning of fire alarm systems includes the following:

1. Establish a clear understanding of the fire protection goals:

  • Code compliance (minimums?)
  • Life safety
  • Property protection
  • Mission protection

2. Understand the issues of the building (for example, class changes, laboratory locations and use) and the impact of the fire alarm system on the building occupants.

3. Understand the impact of the fire alarm system on the operations of the educational facility.

4. Understand what other fire-safety functions the fire alarm system must perform beyond detection (HVAC control, door control, lighting, elevator recall, connections to the FD, etc.).

5. Establish the System Performance Matrix. Determine system programming needs.

Commissioning

1. Establish a clear commissioning plan.

2. Determine all system interfaces (for example, will a mass notification system (MNS) interface with the fire alarm system?).

3. Understand the requirements for acceptance testing and commissioning the fire alarm system.

Contractors must remember that today’s fire alarm systems can be quite complicated. A contractor may program such systems to perform many important fire safety functions. For this reason, the commissioning process has a heightened importance. It must verify that the installed fire alarm system meets the code, and it must verify that the fire alarm system complies with the owner’s design and performance intentions.

A thorough commissioning process will include all of the appropriate operation and maintenance documentation. And, of course, the contractor must provide training for the personnel who will operate the fire alarm system, in order to ensure reliability and minimize downtime of the system.

The broad goal for both the contractor and the owner remains continued high performance and reliability of the installed fire alarm system.

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.