New opportunities for ECs continue to emerge in the government market

Opportunities abound in the government sector for the knowledgeable and persistent contractor. Most contractors avoid bidding on government projects because they are often complicated and laden with paperwork and procedures. However, government projects may include “small” buildings with limited scopes of work where a contractor new to the government arena can bid and complete a specification with minimal financial exposure and still learn the ropes. Contractors who add government projects to their portfolios find that it can balance or compensate for a downturn in other business sectors as well.

One of the largest organizations responsible for contracting fire alarm and security systems installations and upgrades is the General Services Administration (GSA). GSA is the “landlord” for the federal government, with an inventory of more than 330 million square feet of workspace for one million federal employees in 2,000 American communities. This includes more than 1,600 government-owned buildings, or approximately 55 percent of the agency’s total inventory. The remaining 45 percent is in privately owned, leased facilities.

GSA’s fire protection engineering and life safety responsibilities include: providing a safe and healthful workplace; limiting federal government losses; and providing uninterrupted performance of essential services. It is responsible for all design- and construction-related activities, including the development of codes and standards used by GSA to achieve “best-value protection.” Reviewing GSA requirements will assist contractors who need to learn the specific objectives for fire-safe buildings.

In addition to these objectives, GSA, as with all federal government entities, follows the national building codes and the NFPA Life Safety Code. The applicable systems codes, in the case of fire alarm systems, the National Fire Alarm Code and National Electrical Code are referenced by the national building and life safety codes.

GSA also provides technical advice to project management teams involved in new construction and renovation projects. If a contractor chooses to do business with the GSA, they will get the added benefit of guidance throughout the project.

Historic work

Another area often overlooked in this market is government-owned and operated historic properties. GSA is responsible for providing satisfactory space and facilities for government offices while maintaining, repairing and improving these properties. Since many of these buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and others are now or in the future will be eligible for placement on the Register, GSA is further charged with seeing that the maintenance, use and improvements make no major impact upon the historical or architectural qualities of these buildings. To ensure the contractors understanding of the GSA’s requirements for historical buildings, the Maintenance Procedures Handbook for Historic Properties, PBS P 1022.2 is available for contractors who might pursue work in this area.

GSA also provides technical support to GSA business lines, project planners and field operations to cost effectively maintain, upgrade and reuse historic properties in a manner that achieves federal stewardship goals. This mission requires the GSA to be on the cutting edge in developing innovative design solutions and building investment strategies that are economical, extend the useful life of historic structures and minimize the negative effects of changes needed to keep buildings safe, functional and efficient. Through these efforts, GSA develops and promotes numerous fire alarm system upgrades for historic structures. There is extensive paperwork involved, and there are also installation issues rising from the fact that the contractor cannot cause any damage to the historic fabric of the building. These installation issues often outweigh the administrative paperwork issues.

The GSA is a valuable resource for any contractor who is qualified to provide installation services. But it is obviously in the best interest of the contractor to research a potential government project to ensure an understanding of the scope of work and the amount of administrative backing necessary to achieve a profitable venture. Having a contracting background only may not be enough to be successful when installing fire alarm and security systems in government projects. The administrative issues are not difficult to comply with but they are time consuming, so the contractor often becomes frustrated in their efforts to “complete” the project—with all of the paperwork finished and submitted on time to the contracting representative. It is these kinds of details that separate the efficient contractor who adds profits to their bottom lines from those who are struggling only to cope with government projects.

Notification systems

Generally speaking, there are fewer new government building projects today than five years ago, but the retrofit market for new or upgraded fire alarm systems is on the rise.

There are also new types of systems being required as a result of Homeland Security, such as “Mass Notification Systems” for campus- or base-wide notification of all persons, whether occupants in a building or in the outside environment.

Mass notification is the capability to provide real-time information to all building occupants or personnel in the immediate vicinity of a building during emergency situations. All Department of Defense (DoD) installations are required to provide mass notification.

In July 2002, the DoD established new anti-terrorism standards for buildings. These standards include minimum construction requirements and were published as Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) 4-010- Design: DoD Minimum Antiterrorism Standards for Buildings. The requirement to provide “Mass Notification” for nearly all new or renovated DoD facilities was included in the new UFC. This requirement was intended to provide a “timely means to notify (building) occupants of threats and instruct them what to do in response to those threats.”

In December 2002, UFC 4-021- Design and O&M Mass Notification Systems was issued to provide performance specifications for systems that could meet the mass notification requirement. The UFC was developed by collecting and refining criteria from DoD anti-terrorism guidance, examining previous mass notification system evaluation reports and reviewing the capabilities of representative, commercially available mass notification products. This document intentionally included some requirements similar to NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm Code to take advantage of available technologies and manufacturers.

Beginning with the fiscal year 2004 construction program, mass notification is required in all new inhabited buildings, including primary gathering buildings and new billeting. Mass notification is required when implementing a project exceeding the replacement cost threshold specified in UFC 4-010-01. It is recommended in other existing inhabited buildings when implementing a project exceeding the replacement cost threshold. It is also required for leased buildings, building additions, and expeditionary and temporary structures.

The UFC also requires that those responsible for contracting these systems at the various military installations use system integrators and contractors who are able to demonstrate a full knowledge and understanding of the systems used for mass notification, and that have factory-trained personnel to perform system design, installation, testing, training and maintenance.

This one system represents an opportunity that did not exist a few years ago for contractors to install relatively straightforward systems throughout a military installation or a campus of government office buildings.

The contractor obviously plays a key part in the proper installation of these new systems. The installations are challenging because the Mass Notification System integrates indoors, outdoors and telecommunication media into one notification system. This may force the contractor outside of his or her level of comfort and requires specific knowledge of the applicable NEC requirements and other criteria.

NFPA help

The NFPA 72 Technical Committees are now investigating ways to provide guidance to the contractor in the integration of the building fire alarm system with the Mass Notification Systems. However, because money has already been allocated for military installations to begin this work and these projects may be under way, contractors should act immediately to determine the status and availability of these projects. It is anticipated that due to the requirements of the UFC, building fire alarm systems will be upgraded to accommodate the new notification requirements. The existing non-voice fire alarm systems will require extensive redesign to accommodate the Mass Notification System concepts and requirements. And it’s another major opportunity for those contractors ready and willing to take on the challenge.

The bottom line for contractors is that there are profitable government projects available. Contractors must overcome their aversion to paperwork, which in most cases is simply regular status reports on the installation progress. Whether the project is a fire alarm systems upgrade of a new or historic building or the installation of a Mass Notification System, a diligent contractor can use this type of work as a possible springboard to success.

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.