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Lay Down a Code Map: Knowing structure, usage, purpose will make life easier

By Thomas P. Hammerberg | Sep 11, 2023
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The codes and standards used in the fire alarm industry are not as confusing as people might think. 

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The codes and standards used in the fire alarm industry are not as confusing as people might think. If you learn what the purpose of each is and better understand the structure and usage, I think you will find that they are easier than you may imagine. 

Code makers ICC and NFPA

Nationally, we have two sets of model codes. The International Code Council develops the International Building and Fire Codes and a host of others. The National Fire Protection Association develops building, fire and life safety codes, as well as many standards that provide application, installation and testing requirements. 

I mentioned “model codes” because they are the basis of the requirements. Many states made modifications to the model codes to meet their state laws. It would be nice if we had just one code used everywhere, but that is not the case. You need to find out which codes and what editions are used in your area and any modifications. 

I have always been a big believer in ­better communications between contractors and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs). I can guarantee that will make your job easier. You should be able to find most or all of what you need on the internet. More than likely, local building and fire prevention departments have a website containing that information. Another way is to simply call the offices of the building official and fire ­marshal and ask what codes and editions they enforce and for a list of any modifications.

Remember that the requirements for when we must install a fire alarm or ­sprinkler system is in the building, fire or life safety codes. NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, does not tell you when to install a sprinkler system. It tells you how to properly install it. NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, does not tell you when to install a fire alarm system or what you must connect to it, either. It tells you how to properly install, inspect and test it. 

So, the place to start is with the ­applicable building, fire or life safety code enforced in the area of the installation. Just about all, if not all, states use the International Building Code (IBC). Some states allow local jurisdictions to choose their applicable code. Remember that the IBC only contains requirements for new construction and systems. The International Fire Code (IFC) also contains requirements for existing systems. 

Some states use NFPA 101, the Life Safety Code, for their fire alarm requirements. Keep in mind that this code—used for ­healthcare facilities—is a federal requirement, so it applies even if the state does not adopt NFPA 101. Also ­remember that the joint commission enforces a specific edition of the Life Safety Code, which could be different than the ­edition your state enforces. 

If using the IBC, start with Chapter 3 to determine the occupancy classification. You need that information to determine any fire alarm requirements. Then go to Chapter 9, Section 907 to determine if a fire alarm is required and what is needed to connect to it. If area smoke detection is required, this ­section will tell you where the detectors must be installed.

Requirements elsewhere

Keep in mind that you will also find requirements in other places. For ­example, elevator smoke and heat ­detector requirements are in ASME A17.1, Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators. Duct detectors used to close ­dampers and shut down the air handling ­system are found in either the International ­Mechanical Code or NFPA 90A, Standard for the ­Installation of Air-Conditioning and ­Ventilating Systems, depending on what codes are used in your area. 

Additional requirements for smoke detectors may be found in other chapters of the IBC, such as Chapter 4, Special Requirements, and Chapter 10, Means of Egress. Chapter 4 has specific requirements for construction such as high-rise buildings, underground structures, buildings with atriums, shopping malls, etc. Specific requirements would be an addition to the general requirements in Chapter 9.

Regardless of what code you use to determine what is needed for a fire alarm system, they all will tell you it must be installed “in accordance with this code and NFPA 72.” 

Also know that the codes give the AHJ a lot of latitude for interpretation, so if you are in doubt about a requirement, ask. Trust me, the AHJ will appreciate that, because it is a lot easier for everyone if the system is installed properly the first time rather than having to go back and make changes at the end of the job. 

Keep the lines of communication open, spend a little time understanding the layout of the codes and standards and learn where to look for additional requirements, and your jobs will become easier.

About The Author

HAMMERBERG, SET, CFPS, is an independent fire alarm presenter and consultant in The Villages, Fla. He can be reached at [email protected]

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