A little planning can go a long way

In new building construction, electrical contractors most often have the task of installing the fire alarm system. Generally, the fire alarm system does not represent a significant portion of the overall electrical quote. And, unfortunately, a common result is that these systems do not get the attention they deserve.

As most experienced contractors will tell you, the building does not get a certificate of occupancy until the contractor has completed the fire alarm installation. In such a case, the delay in issuing the certificate of occupancy will frustrate the owner and also often cause lost revenue. The owner will expect the electrical contractor to reimburse the lost revenue.

How can you avoid this issue? A simple answer: develop a plan to manage the fire alarm system.

To develop this plan, you must first know the basics of the new fire alarm system’s computer-based technology and the codes that affect the system’s installation. If you wish to avoid confrontational meetings with either the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) or the owner, I suggest you establish a specialty systems team within your electrical organization whose responsibility includes detailed fire alarm systems knowledge. Then you must make product training available to your specialty systems team. This training must go beyond simple “awareness level training,” which will only cover familiarity with the switches, basic operations and wiring techniques. You must provide in-depth training that will allow them to completely understand the fire alarm system equipment, both its acceptable applications and its limits and limited programming and trouble-shooting techniques.

Once you have the well-trained specialty systems team in place, make the determination that you will focus on no more than two equipment suppliers. The equipment on the market today has so many sophisticated features that if you don’t limit the number of suppliers, your specialty systems team will never gain the expertise needed to install the fire alarm systems efficiently.

The specialty systems team must be familiar with the National Fire Alarm Code. This necessary training will prove especially useful when dealing with on-site construction changes that affect the fire alarm system installation.

And finally, you must give the specialty systems team foreman the responsibility to understand the specifications, to interface with the AHJ, and to make on-site decisions regarding the installation of the fire alarm system and its coordination with other trades.

Making these preceding decisions will ensure you are ready to manage fire alarm system installations.

For each job, copy the technical specifications that outline the fire alarm system scope of work and have the specialty systems team foreman read them!

Make sure that the supplier knows who is in charge of the fire alarm systems project and what decision responsibilities he or she has. The specialty systems team foreman must be able to interpret the specifications and relate the supplier’s quotation directly to the project he or she is directing. The specialty systems foreman must also have the authority to make site-specific decisions and coordinate quickly with their superiors when he or she needs additional equipment or a decision to submit a change order.

Coordination with the other tradespeople on site, especially when other systems must connect to the fire alarm system, will prove extremely important. Your team may have completely finished, but if the other trades have not finished, they will directly impact your ability to bring the system on-line. Until the system comes online, the AHJ cannot witness the acceptance test. Your specialty systems foreman must take the lead to ensure the other systems will effortlessly integrate with the fire alarm system. If he or she doesn’t take that responsibility, then this integration won’t happen until the final acceptance test with the AHJ. Once again, this may delay the certificate of occupancy.

To recap the fundamentals of managing a fire alarm system installation:

• Develop a “specialty systems team”

• Provide in-depth training for your team

• Focus on one- or two-fire alarm system equipment suppliers

Make the specialty systems team foreman responsible for:

• Understanding the fire alarm system design, specifications and intended operation

• Making on-site decisions to ensure the fire alarm system installation moves forward in an efficient manner

• Interfacing with the AHJ

• On-site coordination with other trades who must interconnect with the fire alarm system

• Interfacing with the fire alarm systems technician/programmer

• And, finally, ensuring the on-time completion of a successful final acceptance test

The old adage, “Failing to plan is planning to fail” certainly applies here. Manage your fire alarm system installations and you will make a profit on them. Don’t manage them and you will suffer the inevitable consequences. EC

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.