In my 40-plus years in fire protection, I have learned that electrical contractors (ECs) sell and install the lion’s share of fire alarm systems in medium- to large-size buildings. Most of these contractors also finish the installation, pass the acceptance test and move on to the next project. They rarely attempt to convince the owner that the code requires a fire alarm system service contract and that they—as the installers—are the best contractor to provide long-term inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) for the system.
Anyone with experience will agree that the most efficient way to increase sales is to cross-sell or upsell services to a client. ECs often start with an electrical services installation, including a fire alarm system. To get the most sales dollars from every customer, it would be wise to establish a service division within your company to provide future electrical system service and code-mandated ITM.
Another wise move is to hire a service salesperson that understands the client’s needs as well as NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. It states that, to ensure operational integrity, a fire alarm system must have an ITM program, and the code places the ITM responsibility squarely on the owner’s shoulders.
Specifically, Section 126.96.36.199 of NFPA 72 2016 states, “The property or building or system owner or the owner’s designated representative shall be responsible for inspection, testing, and maintenance of the system and for alterations or additions to this system.”
The salesperson should begin the service contract discussion with the EC on-site. He or she will also want to ensure the installation crew provides very specific information, including the following:
- An as-built set of drawings for the system installation
- Audibility measurements taken during the acceptance test and recorded on the as-built drawings, which will provide the service team with a baseline to ensure the system remains audible in the future
- The correct operation of the fire alarm or signaling system’s ability to properly interface with other critical systems
During the acceptance test, the EC should observe the operation of the interfaced system to ensure its correct performance. The ITM salesperson would know that exercising an emergency control function every time a related initiating device actuates might not be desirable or practical. In some cases, the owner may not even permit it. The salesperson should also know that NFPA 72 permits fire alarm or signaling system testing up to the end-point connection to the interfaced system or emergency control function.
The system goals, as developed by the various stakeholders during the design phase will help the salesperson determine what operational testing program can continue to ensure the system meets its mission reliability throughout its life.
Most important, the salesperson must have a complete understanding of the NFPA 72 testing requirements, as Chapter 14 outlines, and should witness the system’s final acceptance testing to ensure an understanding of the installation, the expected system operation and any unique equipment needed for the testing, so that the contract will provide the correct ITM.
Inspection and testing serve two purposes. First, the EC’s staff will perform a visual inspection to ensure no obvious changes or damages have occurred to the system that might affect operability. Second, periodic testing will statistically ensure operational reliability. Although visual inspections contribute to the assurance of the operational integrity and reliability, they do not ensure either.
Generally, contractors perform fire alarm system tests on a scheduled basis—often semiannually, but sometimes more frequently, depending on jurisdictional or the owner’s insurance requirements. Contractors should keep in mind that, at any time, they may only intend to test a portion of large systems. Therefore, service technicians must keep clear and accurate records of what is tested during each periodic test.
In accordance with code requirements, contractors may accomplish fire alarm system interface testing without actually operating the interfaced system or function. However, the owner must understand it is his or her responsibility to have those interfaced systems or functions tested periodically. Contractors may refer to NFPA 4, Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing, to determine the best practices and guidance for testing interfaced systems or functions.
If the contractor plans to have technicians test the interfaced system, he or she should ensure they are qualified. Otherwise, the contractor assumes liability for any inadvertent operation that may cause interfaced extinguishing systems to discharge. The fire alarm system and the interfaced functions must remain operational during a fire emergency.
The code provides requirements for the frequency a qualified technician must test a device, appliance or system and the method that must be used. For example, a technician must test a system smoke detector in place to ensure smoke entry into the sensing chamber and an alarm response. To do so, the technician must use smoke or a listed and labeled product acceptable to the manufacturer or another method in accordance with the manufacturer’s published instructions.
Another example: The test method for restorable-type heat detectors requires service technicians to perform the heat test with a listed and labeled heat source or in accordance with the manufacturer’s published instructions. The technician must ensure the test method for the installed heat detector does not damage any nonrestorable fixed-temperature element of a combination rate-of-rise/fixed-temperature element detector.
NFPA 72 2016, Table 188.8.131.52 provides the required periodic frequency and test methods for all devices, appliances and functions within the fire alarm system. According to Annex A, “Equipment performance can be affected by building modifications, occupancy changes, changes in environmental conditions, device location, physical obstructions, device orientation, physical damage, improper installation, degree of cleanliness, or other obvious problems that might not be indicated through electrical supervision.”
NFPA 72 2016, Table 14.3.1 requires a qualified technician to complete annual inspections every 12 months, monthly inspections every 30 days, and so forth.
A test plan must be established for each system. It clarifies exactly what a technician must test, how to test it and how to document the tested devices. The plan includes instructions about how to respond to a real fire emergency during the test and appropriate signage to advise occupants about the testing.
From time to time, a contractor may install a system, or receive a contract to test an installed system, where the prescriptive testing as required in Table 184.108.40.206 cannot take place due to the nature of the building or occupancy. In this case, “as an alternate means of compliance, subject to the authority having jurisdiction, components and systems shall be permitted to be inspected and tested under a performance-based program,” according to the code.
Remember that the prescriptive tests and the requirements in NFPA 72 provide for essentially qualitative analysis. Quantitative, performance-based analysis can also demonstrate performance levels.
Ultimately, it’s up to the contractor. It has the first contact with the customer through installation work, and, at that time, it is convenient to provide an efficient quotation for the customer’s ITM needs.