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The Real Reason We Test Fire Alarm Systems

By Wayne D. Moore | Mar 15, 2017
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Many contractors have said to me, “The fire alarm system is supervised, and I have a green light on the fire alarm control unit. Why do I need to test it?” While the fire alarm system supervises itself for fault conditions, it only monitors those external circuits that connect the detection devices and notification appliances for integrity. The only way to determine if these detection devices and notification appliances will work properly is to test them directly.


Chapter 14 of NFPA 72 2016, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, provides the requirements for the inspection, testing and maintenance of fire alarm and mass notification systems. These requirements provide the list of minimum actions that qualified people must perform. However, the code does allow for requirements from other sources that exceed those contained in Chapter 14.


The installation of the majority of fire alarm systems intends to meet the life safety requirements as outlined in the building codes and NFPA 101 2015, Life Safety Code. An installed fire alarm system can only meet that goal when it remains operationally reliable. Other fire alarm systems that intend to provide property protection, mission continuity, heritage preservation or environmental protection can only meet those particular goals when the system remains operationally reliable, as well.


Generally, a contractor’s qualified technicians will test a fire alarm system upon installation and then periodically to ensure the system complies with the reviewed and approved design documents and the code requirements.


Again, many contractors will ask why they must test the entire system. The answer to that question is another question: How will you know if the complete system, as installed, works properly if you do not test every component and the operation of that system?


Furthermore, keep in mind that the contractor will be held liable by the building owner and the authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) if the system does not work properly.


Therefore, to ensure the system works as intended, all components must be physically tested—every detection device, every notification appliance and every system interface. Only then is there assurance that the fire alarm system, as installed, is fully operational on the day of the final acceptance test. After that, nobody knows if an unsupervised system component fails until a fire or the next test occurs. Thus, the code requires an ongoing, regularly scheduled inspection, testing and maintenance program for every fire alarm system. This is to ensure operational integrity of the installed fire alarm system throughout its expected life.


Periodic visual inspections of a fire alarm system will help to identify any obvious damage or changes to the system or the environment in which it exists that might affect system operability. Periodic testing intends to test a statistically significant number of components and interfaces to help ensure operational reliability of the entire system. The code requires contractors to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all testing, in addition to complying with the requirements it outlines.


Two important issues require attention when testing fire alarm systems. First, the testing of a fire alarm system impairs the system. The code outlines requirements in Chapter 10 specifically dealing with impairments. Contractors must comply with these impairment requirements during every system test. Additionally, the system owner or the owner’s designated representative must be informed in writing within 24 hours of any deficiencies or impairments that are not corrected at the conclusion of the test.


For example, if during the testing process, a defective smoke detector is discovered and it would take a week for a replacement to be obtained, the owner or their designated representative must be informed of this impairment. Should the entire system become impaired for any reason for more than 8 hours, the AHJ must also be notified.


Guidance in Annex A states, “It is important for the [AHJ], typically the local fire official, to be informed when systems have been out of service for more than 8 hours so that appropriate measures can be taken. The term out of service is meant to refer to the entire system or a substantial portion thereof.”


The second issue is, when performing reacceptance testing and subsequently making modifications or repairs to control equipment hardware, testing must be done to verify the changes have not compromised the system’s operational integrity. For example, when making changes to site-specific software, the code requires testing 100 percent of the functions and components affected by the change as well as 10 percent of initiating devices that are not directly affected by the change.


Understanding your obligations when inspecting, testing and maintaining a fire alarm or mass notification system will help to ensure this part of your business remains a profitable one.

About The Author

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, was a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is president of the Fire Protection Alliance in Jamestown, R.I. Reach him at [email protected]

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