I have often described the reliability of a fire alarm system installation as dependent on four elements: design, equipment, installation and maintenance. I have also explained that the last two elements contribute the most to a fire alarm system’s operational reliability.
I suspect that system maintenance, which includes testing, presents the singular element that most affects long-term operational reliability. The life safety of building occupants depends on regular inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) of the fire alarm system.
Numerous requirements found in Chapter 14 of NFPA 72 2013, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, will guide you to ensure that the systems you test and maintain conform to the ITM requirements of the code.
Acceptance testing of a newly installed or upgraded fire alarm system ensures compliance with the approved design documents and that the fire alarm system will operate as required to meet the building owner’s fire-protection goals. Acceptance testing also confirms that the installation will meet the requirements of NFPA 72 and any other pertinent building code, fire code or installation standards.
Acceptance testing will also certify that the installer has used the correct equipment and has properly located and installed that equipment to ensure both operational and mission reliability. The need for rigorous acceptance testing applies to any type of signaling system, not just to fire alarm systems. Other signaling systems, such as mass notification systems, must also receive proper acceptance testing.
At this early stage of any signaling system’s life, the responsibilities for performing such testing and inspection rest with the systems’ designers, installers, and the various applicable authorities having jurisdiction. As a fire alarm system or signaling system contractor, you and your technicians will perform the actual inspection and testing.
Operational testing will show that the system has met specific benchmarks, such as a specific mission objective or set of goals.
Acceptance testing includes not only the operational test of all fire alarm devices, notification appliances and fire safety control functions, but it also includes testing of the fire alarm operation or signaling system’s ability to interface properly with other fire protection and safety systems. You might expect that the best way to ensure a properly interfaced system or device would involve observing the actual operation of it. However, the annex of the code states: “…constant exercising of an emergency control function every time a related initiating device is activated might not be desirable or practical, or in some cases may not even be permitted. NFPA 72 permits fire alarm or signaling system testing up to the end-point connection to the interfaced system or emergency control function.”
Remember that the whole point of acceptance testing of the newly installed or newly upgraded fire alarm or signaling system is to establish an operational benchmark against which future testing is referenced. Upon testing the fire alarm or signaling system during your ITM contract, you will compare the results against the benchmarks established during the acceptance test. Periodic inspections and testing first ensure that you clearly identify any obvious damage or changes that might affect the system’s operability and will, secondly, statistically ensure operational reliability of the fire alarm or signaling system.
Therefore, develop your ITM program with a carefully defined test plan, as outlined in the annex of NFPA 72 2013. This written plan must clearly establish the scope of the fire alarm or signaling system, so that you and your technicians understand which devices, control panel features, notification appliances, and interfaced systems must be tested during your ITM contact. The plan will determine how and how often to test each of these items, and it will create a framework within which you will document exactly which devices, appliances and interfaces you tested and which you did not test and why.
You will often test fire alarm and signaling systems in a specific time frame or periodic fashion to accommodate the availability of testing or other personnel or to minimize the interruption of building operations. The code annex states: “Building operations can be affected by testing of the fire alarm or signaling system itself and by the operation of emergency control functions activated by the fire alarm or signaling system. The boundary of the fire alarm or signaling system extends up to and includes the emergency control function interface device.” The NFPA technical committee added this last sentence to the 2013 code. As the code states, the testing requirements for the fire alarm system end at the emergency control function interface device.
The testing of emergency control functions, releasing systems or other interfaced equipment lies outside the scope of NFPA 72. Again from the annex: “Requirements for testing other systems are found in other governing laws, codes, or standards. Requirements for integrated testing of combined systems also fall under the authority of other governing laws, codes, standards, or authority having jurisdiction. NFPA 3, Recommended Practice for Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems, provides guidance for such testing. NFPA 3 recognizes the importance of the development of an integrated testing plan.”
Your testing plan may require periodic testing on such a step-by-step basis that you may not always test the entire fire alarm or signaling system during a single time period. You will often test a portion of the devices, appliances or interfaces. However, at the end of the periodic testing, you will have conducted a 100 percent system test in accordance with the requirements of NFPA 72. Understand that, although periodic testing contributes to the assurance of operational and mission reliability, it does not fully ensure either by itself.
Additionally, the code clearly requires that the owner or the owner’s designated representative and service personnel coordinate system testing to prevent the interruption of critical building systems or equipment.
The act of testing any fire alarm system impairs the system’s normal operational status. Because of this, NFPA 72 2013 section 18.104.22.168 states, “Before proceeding with any testing, all persons and facilities receiving alarm, supervisory, or trouble signals and all building occupants shall be notified of the testing to prevent unnecessary response.”
As a follow-up, Section 22.214.171.124 states, “At the conclusion of testing, those previously notified (and others, as necessary) shall be notified that testing has been concluded.”
In addition, once you notify the occupants and start the test, the plan must include a clearly written procedure that states exactly how you will notify the fire department and occupants should a real fire occur.
If you regularly test and inspect systems, you know that you will find deficiencies. The code requires that you correct these deficiencies before leaving the building. If for some valid reason you cannot do so, notify the owner in writing within 24 hours of concluding your work that the system remains impaired. Even though the code makes this provision, you should always have planned properly and have spare parts available to make repairs immediately in all but the most unusual cases. Remember, when the fire alarm system cannot operate as intended, the lives of the occupants remain in danger should a fire or other emergency occur.
As a fire alarm and signaling system contractor, you perform one of the most important functions that affects a critical element of the reliability equation. While you perform this important work, you also help to police non-code-compliant installations. Inevitably, during your pursuit of ITM contracts, you will find systems that cannot properly perform their intended functions or that do not comply with the code. Your level of professionalism will determine how you react to such discoveries.
In my opinion, you will need to step up and inform the owners of their predicament and what you can do to help them by submitting a written proposal to do the work necessary to correct the deficiencies. The proposal should indicate what currently does not work or which part of the system installation does not comply with the code. If the owners choose not to use your services while knowing their systems remain impaired, then you have provided your opinion of the issues and transferred all liability for subsequent occurrences to the owner.
If, in your opinion, the system presents a life-safety hazard as installed, you have a moral obligation to inform the authority having jurisdiction.
Always remember that performing the ITM required of fire alarm systems helps to maintain the system’s operational reliability and thus helps protect the occupants who trust in your ability to perform the work in a code-compliant fashion. It’s your job to ensure that the system provides them with adequate protection.