Know the Differences

By Wayne D. Moore | Jun 15, 2008
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As most contractors know, installing fire alarm systems is a code-driven business. One would think the requirements for fire alarm system installations are the same for all commercial and government buildings. While that may be the case for some government buildings, it certainly is not universal. With federal office buildings or courthouses, for example, knowing the General Services Administration’s (GSA) requirements is necessary if you don’t want to lose money on the project.

avid Frable, a fire protection engineer for the GSA, describes the organization as “the landlord of the civilian federal government with a total inventory of over 330 million square feet that houses in excess of 1 million federal employees in 2,000 communities throughout the nation.”

Before a contractor decides to bid on a fire alarm system project for a GSA-owned or -managed building, he should review and understand the entire Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (PBS-P100) document, published by GSA’s public buildings service. Although the GSA uses national codes and standards when designing and installing fire alarm systems, PBS-P100 establishes additional design standards and criteria for all new buildings, major and minor alterations, and work in historic structures for buildings owned or managed by GSA. This document is intended to be GSA’s building standard and provides specific requirements in addition to the national codes. It describes the differences, some quite subtle, between GSA projects and commercial nongovernment buildings.

“One of the initial steps of any GSA project is to know the applicable codes and standards—including the referenced edition and any amendments—for which the project must be in compliance,” Frable said.

For example, additional requirements outlined in GSA PBS-P100 concern the circuit wiring survivability. In general, the fire alarm system is required to meet the survivability requirements in NFPA 72. However, PBS-P100 has the following special requirements that take precedence over the requirements found in the National Fire Alarm Code:

> Two vertical risers (i.e., supply and return interconnected network circuits Style 7-Class A) shall be installed as remote as practicable from each other so that a single fire will not involve both risers.

> The two vertical risers shall be protected by a minimum 2-hour rated enclosure or an approved 2-hour rated cable or system, not common to both vertical risers.

> The horizontal interconnection between the two vertical risers at the top and bottom shall be protected by a minimum 2-hour rated enclosure, or an approved 2-hour cable or system, or an approved construction material having a 2-hour fire-resistance rating.

> A minimum of two distinct fire alarm audible notification appliance circuits and a minimum of two distinct visible notification appliance circuits shall be provided on each floor.

> Adjacent fire alarm audible and visible notification appliances shall be on separate circuits.

This last requirement can seriously impact a project’s profitability if the contractor is not aware of the additional GSA requirements.

Due to their symbolic status as well as their practical importance, many government buildings are potential terrorist targets. This requires a different approach to the design and installation of fire alarm systems; for instance, this reality often will dictate that regardless of the size of the building, a voice communication system will be required. The reason for the increased use of a fire alarm/voice communication system is the requirements for mass notification systems (MNS).

Other government properties include those found on military bases with buildings affected by additional requirements that may not be familiar to the contractor.

In 2002, the Department of Defense (DOD) developed a number of Uniform Facilities Criteria (UFC) to be included in its Minimum Anti-Terrorism Standards for Buildings. Central to UFC was the need for mass notification systems that would “provide a timely means to notify (building) occupants of threats and instruct them what to do in response to those threats.”

As a result of the military services work, the Unified Facilities Criteria, UFC 4-021-01 document titled Design and O&M: Mass Notification Systems was created in order to provide guidance and requirements for MNS in DOD facilities. In the 2007 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code, the Technical Correlating Committee established Annex E to provide guidance for the interface of MNS with standard fire alarm/voice communication systems. For the first time in the history of the code, the content of the annex would permit an MNS signal to override a fire alarm signal.

Currently, the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee has established a new chapter for all communications systems, including MNS, in the proposed 2010 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code. This new Chapter 12 has the title “Emergency Communications Systems.” It will provide guidance and requirements for all mass notification and fire alarm/voice communication systems. (see figure on page 14).

The content of the proposed chapter has reached the report on proposals stage and is available for review on the NFPA Web site (

As stated in the purpose section of the proposed chapter, “The systems covered under Chapter 12 are for the protection of life by indicating the existence of an emergency situation and communicating information necessary to facilitate an appropriate response and action. … An emergency communications system is intended to communicate information about emergencies including but not limited to fire, terrorist activities, other dangerous situations, accidents, and natural disasters.”

Some of the highlights that will be important to those who design MNS include major changes regarding fire alarm/voice systems for other uses.

For example, the Technical Correlating Committee has proposed requirements that permit the use of code-compliant fire alarm/voice systems for routine, frequent use, such as for paging, without requiring the approval of the authority having jurisdiction. The committee also has agreed on requirements that permit MNS to use speakers that are also used as alarm notification appliances on fire alarm/voice communication systems.

As one might expect, not all mass notification messages should take priority over the fire alarm messages to relocate or evacuate. The proposed code suggests the development of messages using risk analysis and offers the following voice message priority suggestions:

1. “Live voice messages from qualified personnel on site should be the highest priority. Systems could permit microphone locations that are usable by non-emergency personnel, but those microphones should be disabled during emergency operations.

2. “Automatic fire alarm messages/other high priority messages as determined by risk analysis criteria.

3. “Message priority for emergency conditions such as severe weather warnings, gas leaks, chemical spills, and other hazardous conditions should be determined by risk analysis criteria.

4. “Non-emergency messages, such as general announcements and time function signaling (work breaks, class change, etc.) should have the lowest priority.”

In multibuilding campus-style or regional systems, “local buildings could be controlled and overridden from a central control station. When the local fire alarm system is not in an alarm condition, the central control station can override without restriction. If a local system is active for any reason, the central control station should only be able to override if authorized personnel can determine the status of the local system. If the local fire alarm system is actively in alarm mode, it can only be overridden by a central control station where the interface meets all requirements of the proposed Code.” For example, one would not expect a message advising of an impending weather event to take priority over a fire emergency.

So, in general, most government buildings will have the requirement to use the fire alarm/voice communication system as a mass notification system.

A competent contractor will ensure that he or she has researched the various additional instructions for fire alarm systems that will inevitably be required.

The PBS-P100 document is available online at

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.

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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