This year, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) submitted 41 proposals for NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, in an effort to reduce false alarms caused by fire alarm systems. Is there really a problem? How do we, as an industry, reduce unwanted alarms? There are three basic steps to ensure fire alarm systems are reliable: design, installation and maintenance.

How do we ensure fire alarm systems are designed properly? Who is responsible? The industry faces an ongoing problem: unqualified designers. They could be an electrical engineer or a contractor; although, technically, contractors cannot legally design fire alarm systems in most states. Too often, the unqualified design engineer puts wording in specifications that “the fire alarm contractor is responsible for meeting all local, state and national codes and standards.” This language is not a design. It is simply passing the buck to the contractor.

Every state has an engineering licensing board and a code of ethics engineers must follow. All state that engineers must only practice in their field of expertise. Unfortunately, that is not always the reality. A design engineer must be familiar with the adopted codes and standards, understand the occupancy use group requirements, and design a system that will operate within the limitations of the facility. He or she must have an understanding of what the fire risks are and the best way to reduce those risks. The engineer must choose the correct fire protection equipment to meet those needs. If smoke detectors are required, he or she must understand the type of fire to be expected, so the proper detection technology is used. Fortunately, today’s technology has greatly improved the detection methodology, and the detectors are much more resistant to nuisance alarms. NFPA 72 2010, 10.14.3.1, states that “initiating devices of the manual or automatic type shall be selected and installed so as to minimize nuisance alarms.”

NFPA 72 2010, paragraph 10.4.1 has guidance for qualifications for designers of fire alarm systems. Along with qualifications, it states, “the system designer shall provide evidence of their qualifications and/or certification when requested by the authority having jurisdiction.”

Another important step for reliable fire alarm systems is proper code enforcement. Plan reviewers should reject submittals that do not meet code or are designed by unqualified designers.

The second component of reliable fire alarm systems is proper installation. How many times have you seen smoke detectors installed too close to air diffusers? It is a nuisance alarm waiting to happen. I have asked contractors why they installed the smoke detectors in such a location, and the most common answer is, “That is where they are shown on the drawing.” It is important that whoever is making the fire alarm drawing use reflected ceiling plans instead of floor plans so this mixup does not happen. An installer should be qualified in accordance with the guidelines in paragraph 10.4.2 of NFPA 72, know the installation requirements of NFPA 72 and install the equipment properly.

Once the installation is complete, the building must be commissioned. Commissioning not only includes testing of the fire alarm devices, but end-to-end testing of their function. For smoke dampers, testing would ensure the damper closes once a detector operates. Proper testing requires coordination between trades to ensure that happens. The fire alarm contractor may not be qualified to test the operation of the smoke damper, and the mechanical contractor may not be qualified to test the smoke detectors. By working together to ensure all necessary steps take place and the proper function occurs, life safety systems in a building are much more reliable.

There is a new document being developed today that should help: NFPA 3, Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems. This document will be voted on at the NFPA conference to be held in Boston this month (see the Fire Focus for more on -NFPA 3). There is also discussion on breaking out the integrated testing requirements of NFPA 3 and placing them in another new document called NFPA 4, Standard for Integrated Testing of Fire Protection Systems. The scope of this proposed document is: “The standard would provide the necessary protocol for integrated testing procedures, responsibilities for various parties, methods and documentation for verifying that the correct operational readiness and sequence of multiple active and passive fire protection and life safety systems when interconnected operate as intended when specified by a design and or regulatory required document.”

Hopefully, this will make it clearer who is responsible and how the end-to-end testing is to be accomplished. All these steps can help ensure fire protection systems, when installed, will be reliable and work as intended.


HAMMERBERG is president/executive director of the Automatic Fire Alarm Association Inc. headquartered in Jasper, Ga. He serves on a number of NFPA committees, including the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee and the Protected Premises Technical Committee. He can be reached at TomHammerberg@afaa.org.