Throughout my career, I have found contractors that attempt to perform fire alarm system installations by the seat of their pants. A contractor typically has grown up in the industry with some valuable training resources. But, as time goes by, they can start relying on others and taking input from fire alarm supplier salespeople, often with wrong information. This has proven especially true as the fire alarm system technology has developed and become more complicated.


A contractor often takes the information on the equipment sales sheet as gospel. Unfortunately, it was written by a supplier’s marketing team, which may have taken liberties. Additionally, the NFPA technical committees add requirements based on the seeming inability of contractors to “get it right” when installing fire alarm systems. Then, to muddy the situation further, the NFPA adds internal procedures that says the codes and standards technical committees cannot require anything that might be beyond the scope of the particular technical committee.


This unintentionally causes confusion in the field as to what a contractor must price and quote to meet all of the codes and standards requirements that relate to fire alarm systems. Sometimes, actions by other code-making bodies further complicate the issue. The recent editions of the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Fire Code (IFC) have adopted by reference NFPA 4, Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing.


So what does this mean the contractor? It means that even when the jurisdiction in which you work has not yet adopted the most current IBC or IFC, you should expect the fire official to want all fire alarm and associated systems tested in accordance with NFPA 4.


Many contractors assume that once they install a fire alarm system, and perform an acceptance test on it, the work is done. Nothing could be further from the truth. The old statement by contractors that their installation will “meet code” takes on a whole new meaning.


NFPA 4-2015 defines an integrated systems test as “a test performed on fire protection and life safety systems to confirm that operation, interaction, and coordination of multiple individual systems perform their intended function.”


“Life safety systems” can include either active and passive fire protection systems, devices or assemblies. Generally, these systems include several items of equipment, processes, actions or behaviors, grouped or interconnected to reduce injuries or death from fire or other life-­threatening event. Life safety systems often integrate systems that intend to enhance or facilitate evacuation, smoke control, compartmentalization or isolation.


Contractors may normally test a fire alarm system connected to an elevator recall system to ensure that, when the smoke detector is actuated, the elevator recall took the elevator to the appropriate floor. But, an integrated systems test can include many other life-safety-related systems beyond a simple elevator recall test. Integrated testing will include other building systems whose designs intend to integrate other fire and life safety systems, such as HVAC control, smoke control, fire damper release and smoke door closure.


As stated in the Annex A of NFPA 4-2015, “Integrated tests might also be referred to as end-to-end tests.” When performing an integrated test of fire alarm and other life safety systems, the contractor must ensure the actuation of all individual system inputs and observation of all individual system responses or outputs. Generally, I would not recommend standing at the fire alarm control unit (FACU) and testing specific inputs and outputs, or responses, without actually testing the devices, FACU response, and the response of the integrated life safety system.


Typically, the electrical team will not do the integrated system testing. The standard requires establishing an “integrated system test team” and developing an integrated test plan. For new systems, the minimum requirements for a test plan include the following:


(1) Written verification that the integrated system and its individual systems have been installed in accordance with the approved design documents.


(2) List of the individual systems to be tested


(3) Documentation of the individual systems as required by the 
applicable codes or standards


(4) Integrated test team and additional entities required to be in attendance


(5) Equipment required for testing


(6) A comprehensive functional matrix depicting all system inputs and associated output functions


(7) List of necessary drawings, including riser diagrams and control diagrams


(8) Narrative description of the test scenarios, including what is needed for record of completion to document approval by the authority having jurisdiction


(9) The extent of systems to be tested under the direction of the 
Integrated Testing Agent


(10) Test schedule, including individual systems


(11) Periodic integrated systems test frequency


You and the integrated system testing agent, along with the other systems (elevator, HVAC, etc.) installation and testing personnel, are responsible for ensuring the testing of integrated systems in accordance with the test plan. Sometimes, an integrated system test might not include an end-to-end test. 


For example, consider an integrated system consisting of a fire alarm system and an elevator system. An end-to-end test would require that the actuation of the appropriate fire alarm smoke detector and the observation of the elevator responding to the signal by returning to a specific location, parking properly and opening the elevator doors. However, another integrated test might only assess the interface between the two systems by using a menu command on the fire alarm system to actuate the interface device—a relay powered by the fire alarm system and interfaced to the elevator controller.


You might observe the elevator returning to the proper floor. But, the test did not originate at the fire alarm initiating device. Therefore, the test does not constitute an end-to-end integrated system test. The issue, of course, becomes which test should the testing plan require?


If the fire protection engineer has specified the use of NFPA 4-2015 as the standard of care, plan to perform an end-to-end test. Generally, the specifications will include additional instructions to ensure you understand the depth of the integrated system testing expected and required.


Contractors often confuse integrated system testing with system commissioning. The standard uses the “Cx” for commissioning and defines it as “a systematic process that provides documented confirmation that building systems function according to the intended design criteria set forth in the project documents and satisfy the owner’s operational needs, including compliance with applicable laws, regulations, codes, and standards.”


Commissioning goes further than integrated systems testing, and requires a clear understanding of the design intent for the commissioned systems, as well as an understanding of the manufacturer’s operational requirements. This understanding will help ensure efficient operation of the commissioned system. Increasingly, you will find that in all things related to fire alarm system, the codes and standards require ever more detailed documentation.


For example, NFPA 72-2016, Chapter 7, now contains a list of all of the standard documentation for fire alarm and mass notification systems. When commissioning a system, or participating in the commissioning process, you will need to follow another document called the “commissioning plan.” NFPA 4-2015 defines the commissioning plan as a “document prepared for each project that identifies the processes and procedures necessary for a successful commissioning process.” The plan establishes and provides the structure for how to handle and manage commissioning on a given project.


By now, you should have figured out that when you prepared a bid for the installation of a fire alarm system, simply planning the kind of tests you may have performed in the past will not meet the current requirements. And, as you can tell from the information presented in this article, testing a fire alarm system can become a very complicated process.


It becomes all the more important that you know and understand the changes taking place in the pertinent codes and standards. You should also seek to understand the reasoning behind the design documents and behind the requirements for both integrated testing and commissioning. Such an effort would be a very good place to start.