In May of last year, the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland conducted a study to demonstrate the relative performance of smoke detectors and sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings and apartments, commercial residential (e.g., hotels), and institutional occupancies. In so doing, they illustrated the important roles these devices play to mitigate fire events. This study offers proof that smoke alarms and detectors respond prior to residential or ordinary sprinklers and have the capability of providing the earliest warning of a fire to building occupants.

In fact, the review of information unanimously indicates that smoke alarms respond prior to sprinklers. And, as stated in the UMD report, “tenability analyses conducted using data from several of the experimental programs concluded that sufficient egress time is provided by smoke alarms, considering conditions existing at the time of their response.”

A number of reports have shown similar results. One 1990 study reviewed smoke detector operation in a simulated hotel room. It concluded: “The role of smoke detectors in life safety has also been clearly shown. Smoke detectors warn room occupants in either fast--growing or smoldering fires while the room environment is such that an occupant can easily escape. Moreover, the warning occurs when the fire is small. Thus, the fire may possibly be extinguished without intervention of sprinklers.”

So obviously, having both smoke alarms and sprinklers affords the occupants significant life safety advantages. With smoke detectors providing the early indication of fires, people can evacuate prior to succumbing to the loss of visibility from the smoke. They also avoid the increase in carbon monoxide and other gases produced from incomplete combustion of the fire that may well cause their death. While responding later, sprinklers provide the critically important function of fire suppression that will limit the development of hazardous conditions and protect the means of egress from a building.

So, why is this information important to you as an electrical contractor? First, your customers likely do not know the importance of smoke detection. Second, they may assume that one or two smoke detectors in the hallway of a commercial residential building will provide all of the warning necessary for the occupants.

The only way to gain the true benefit from smoke detection comes from placing them throughout a building to ensure early detection of small fires. As research has shown, in order for a smoke detector to respond to small fires, the smoke detectors must cover the same area of the fire without any obstructions that might delay the detection.

One of the many ways you can increase your fire alarm system sales is to stay abreast of the research that affects the fire alarm and fire protection market. As I have stated in previous articles, many contractors settle for code-based sales and do not attempt to upsell more fire protection. You need to look at every client request as an opportunity to help your customer arrive at the best possible fire protection that will meet their protection goals at a reasonable cost. For example, if a customer requests a code-compliant system, you may help the customer analyze whether simply meeting the minimum code requirement will actually provide the level of protection the particular project or he or she really needs.

If you arm yourself with the fire research information, you will maintain a better position to convince the owner of the importance of adding more smoke detection than the code may typically require.

Upselling fire detection is important for one- and two-family construction. Instead of simply installing 110-volt, alternating current, code-required smoke alarms, take the opportunity to explain the importance of a full fire alarm system with additional smoke detection throughout the structure. This becomes especially important when a residential occupancy is located above a commercial occupancy, such as a store or restaurant. In mixed-occupancy cases, using a single fire alarm system for the entire building and adding more smoke detectors to provide complete coverage offers much better fire protection.

In many cases, these smaller mixed occupancies present more of a life safety hazard, as the code may not require them to have automatic sprinkler protection. In fact, the code may only require them to have a manual fire alarm system. Without smoke detection in the commercial occupancy, as well as the residential occupancy, a fire could grow undetected and block the escape route of the residential portion of the building.

In order to best serve your customers, you must evaluate these types of occupancies before settling on just the code-mandated smoke alarms and manual fire alarm system.

In any case, if you really want to succeed, and even excel, in the fire alarm system business, you need to know more than the applicable codes. You also need to understand the role detection, especially smoke detection, plays in providing life safety benefits to your customers in all types of residential occupancies. Keeping up-to-date on current fire research can give you an edge over your competition because you surely will provide the best protection of life and property in town.


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 wmoore@haifire.com.